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29.04.2015 09:35    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  parasha  tazria  metzora  

Dr. Rafi Jospe

Department of Jewish Philosophy

Leprosy and the Sins of Speech

In the Middle Ages, Jewish Bible exegesis developed the notion of Pardes—four sorts of interpretation: peshat, or the plain sense; remez, or typology; drash, the homiletic interpretation; and sod, the mystical view. How was the biblical tzara`at (leprosy) understood according to each mode of exegesis?

The plain sense of tzara`at

Leprosy as it is known today is an infectious disease caused by germs similar to those that cause tuberculosis. It attacks the skin and the nerves and is considered incurable. Is the biblical tzara`at the same as leprosy, or is it Hansen's disease? Biblical tzara`at does indeed attack the skin, but it is considered curable. Further, this week's reading also refers to tzara`at of garments and of the house, whereas leprosy affects only humans.

In the Bible and the Talmud, in contrast to Greek tradition, there is no sharp distinction between body and soul. The concepts of "pure" and "impure," or "clean" and "unclean," (tahor, tameh) are spiritual, not physical, and their practical significance lies in whether one may or may not have access to the Sanctuary, whether one may or may not come into contact with other Jews, etc. It is important to note that these concepts apply only to Jews, not gentiles. Only a Jew can be said to be pure or impure.

Cleanliness and uncleanliness are also mentioned with respect to animals (at the end of Parashat Shemini), and there, too, the categories are spiritual, not physical: animals are deemed either fit or unfit to be eaten by people who are holy (qadosh) or brought as sacrifices to the temple, on the basis of their status as clean or unclean. Therefore, even when interpreting according to the plain sense of Scripture, the disease of tzara`at should be understood in the context of the laws of purity and impurity.

Homiletical (midrash) approach

The Sages reinforced the spiritual-physical unity by interpreting tzara`at as a punishment primarily for the sin of lashon ha-ra, speaking evil or gossiping. The very term itself, metzora (=leper) they interpreted midrashically as a notarikon for "motzi shem ra," or "one who utters evil reports" (Leviticus Rabbah 16.2; Soncino ed., p. 203). The story of Moses' sister Miriam provides the proof (Num. 12:1-13). A similar reading is given for the verse in Psalms: "Who is the man who is eager for life? … Guard your tongue from evil, you lips from deceitful speech" (Ps. 34:13-14), and in Proverbs: "He who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble" (Prov. 21:23).

The midrash teaches us further that a person who speaks evil transgresses all the laws of the Torah, since the word Torah is mentioned five times in the verses that warn us against the affliction of tzara`at (Lev. Rabbah 16.6, Soncino ed., pp. 207-208):

Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said: Five times is the word "law" (torah) used with reference to leprosy, viz. This is the law of the plague of leprosy (Lev. 13:59); This shall be the law of the leper (Lev. 14:2); This is the law of him in whom is the plague of leprosy (Lev. 14:32); This is the law for all manner of plague of leprosy (Lev. 14:54); This is the law of leprosy (Lev. 14:57). [Since, as we have seen], This is the law of the leper means, "… of him that utters evil reports," it [i.e. the five-fold repetition of Torah in this matter] is intended to teach you that if one indulges in calumny, it is as if he transgresses the Five Books of the Torah.

The idea that leprosy develops gradually, in accordance with our sins, is also reinforced by the third approach to biblical exegesis.

Typological/Allegorical approach:

Sefer ha-Hinukh (an anonymous work from the 13th century, listing all the commandments according to the order in which they appear in the Torah on the basis of Maimonides' list of 613 commandments)[1] gives a philosophical-allegorical interpretation of leprosy. This work interprets the commandment not only in terms of Halakhah, but also in terms of its roots, its underlying moral and spiritual significance.

Sefer ha-Hinukh, following Maimonides,[2] maintains that the commandments associated with leprosy have a moral purpose. A person must not think his illness is incidental, rather he must accept it as a warning from a provident G-d. When a person afflicted with leprosy comes to understand his disease in this manner, he will fully repent. We quote from Sefer ha-Hinukh (168, p. 243):

Therefore we have been admonished to pay attention to this bad disease and to think that it is caused by sin. As the Sages have said, for the most part it comes from the sin of uttering evil reports and does not come to us by chance. One must come to the priest, who is in charge of expiation of sinners, and in the presence of the one who makes expiation perhaps he will consider repenting, and when put under quarantine for several days perhaps he will turn to examining his actions.

The roots of the commandment lie in the Blessed Lord wishing, in His great beneficence, to discipline us just as a father disciplines his son, for this matter [leprosy] is not something natural; rather it is a sign to the holy nation, intended to make them take heed and learn their lesson, when the garments especially used by them, namely clothing of wool and flax – for these are what mankind uses most – become changed. Then they will repent of their evil ways before the affliction appears on their very bodies as well (positive commandment 170, p. 246).

According to this view, leprosy teaches us a moral lesson: a person is responsible for his actions, and his actions have consequences. Divine providence warns us gradually, before the damage becomes irreversible, first by afflicting one's clothing, and only later, if the warning is ignored, by a worse affliction against the body.

The view that leprosy warns us gradually, progressing according to our sins, is reinforced by the mystic approach of the Zohar (Book of Splendor).

Mystical approach:

The Zohar (Vol. 3, Parashat Tazria, 45.2-43.1) tells us (in free translation):

When [R. Hiyya and R. Jose] were walking, they came upon a person standing under a tree, his face full of sores. Looking at him, they noted that his face was red from these sores. Rabbi Hiyya asked, "Who are you?" He answered, "I am a Jew." Rabbi Jose said, "He is a sinner, for were it not so, his face would not be covered with these evil things; and this is not what we call the 'disciplining of love.'" Rabbi Hiyya said, "You are right, for the disciplining of love is hidden from man's eye… Wounds that are visible to are caused by impurity and are not the disciplining of love … for it is written, 'Open reproof is better than concealed love' (Prov. 27:5). [R. Hiyya seems to be learning that reproof is good when it comes from (me-ahavah) concealed love] What is meant by a loving reproof that is hidden from man? He who reproves his fellow with love must hide it [the reproof] from [other] people, so as not to embarrass the person being reproved. If [he reproves him] openly in front of others, it is not loving reproof. Thus it is with the Holy One, blessed be He – when He reproves people He does so lovingly. Initially, he strikes at them inwardly. If the person repents, well and good; if not, He strikes him under his clothes. Such [reproof] is called disciplining out of love. If he repents, well and good; if not, He strikes him openly on the face, in front of everyone, so that people look at him and know that he is a sinner and his Master does not love him.

The gradual nature of the onset of leprosy, which Sefer Ha-Hinukh saw as a sign of Divine Providence, is interpreted in the Zohar as a sign of Divine love. Leprosy is supposed to teach us moral sensitivity: not only must reproof to another be gradual, it must also be done in private, at least initially. For, if the purpose of reproof is moral correction, how could it be done in such a way as to ignore moral sensitivity towards a person's honor, even when dealing with someone who has sinned?

The Book of Splendor teaches another moral lesson: obviously lashon ha-ra, abuse of the faculty of speech, refers to speech which offends and hurts one's fellow. However one can also be guilty of lashon ha-ra by being silent when one should have spoken out to help another person. As the Zohar points out (loc. sit. 46.2-47-1):

Regarding such behavior it is written: "He who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble" (Prov. 21:23). Surely the soul that ought to have spoken out was silenced because of lashon ha-ra Just as a person is punished for an evil word, so too is he punished for a good word which he could have spoken but did not speak… All the more so when people follow crooked ways, and one could have said something to them and reproved them, and instead one held one's peace and did not speak. Thus it is written: "I was dumb, silent; I was very still while my pain was intense" (Ps. 39:3). [That is to say], suffering intense pain from sores of impurity.

In conclusion, on the level of the plain sense or peshat we have seen that leprosy as a physical disease is associated with the spiritual categories of purity and impurity. On the homiletical level, we learned about the connection between leprosy and the most common sin of all – abuse of speech. (Note that in the confession recited on the Day of Atonement, sins having to do with speech predominate.) On the allegorical level we have seen that abusive speech harms not only the victim, the person to whom the evil words are addressed, but also the person speaking evil, who ignores the warning signs that are sent him. Lastly, on the mystic level we learned that gossip refers not only to saying things with the intention of hurting one's fellow, but also saying things with the avowed intention of helping others mend their ways. Public reproach can come under the rubric of abuse of speech, and even remaining silent when speaking out could have helped can be considered abuse of speech.

Like biblical tzara`at, abusing the faculty of speech desecrates and pollutes our homes, the substance of our lives, and ultimately ourselves. Therefore, when we stumble and fall prey to it, we ought to pause and say to ourselves, like the leper of ancient times: "He shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, 'Unclean! Unclean!'" (Lev. 13:45).

[1] Chavel edition, Jerusalem 1972.

[2] Maimonides held that a person's behavior is not predetermined, nor is it altogether incidental. People are responsible for their actions, and their actions have results in accordance with Divine Providence. See Shmonah Perakim, ch. 8; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, ch. 5; Guide for the Perplexed, 3.17.

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