Parashat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33
In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Tazria, we read about tzaraat, commonly mistranslated “leprosy.” This was a miraculous skin eruption that would occur in a Jewish person in ancient times who engaged in tale-bearing or other lapses of morality. A white spot with particular characteristics would appear on the skin, and the afflicted person would seek out the kohen, the priest, to determine whether this was, in fact, the biblical tzaraat. If it was, the individual would be placed in isolation, where they would reflect upon their moral failings and resolve to change. When their repentance was accepted in Heaven, the tzaraat affliction would depart, and the person would be accepted back into the fold.
It might be useful to think of tzaraat in terms of Oscar Wilde’s well-known novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Wilde’s novel tells of Dorian Gray, a handsome young man with perfect features who has his portrait painted by an artist. Terrified of aging, Dorian wishes he could stay young while the image in the painting aged. Dorian subsequently falls into a life of dissolution, and while his features remain perfect, the portrait that he keeps in an inner room becomes more and more ugly. One night, Dorian decides to destroy it and stabs it with a knife. There is a crash, and his servants enter to find an old, ugly man lying dead on the ground in front of a portrait of a young and innocent Dorian.
Tzaraat is exactly like that. We engage in immoral and corrupt activities and no one who sees us is the wiser. But in the time of the Temple, one fine day a white blotch would appear on the body of the corrupt person. The blotch was a sign of inner moral decay, of a stagnation that had finally bubbled up to the surface and at last had become visible. The tzaraat thus represented a Heaven-sent chance to think about one’s path in life and to change one’s ways. And if the person didn’t change, their moral degradation remained visible on their body for all to see.
Today, we have no tzaraat. On the one hand, that means we need not worry about finding one day that we need to go to the kohen with tzaraat to be sentenced to isolation. But it also means that we’ve got only ourselves to fall back on, to ensure that we haven’t succumbed to the lures of corruption and immorality. We won’t be getting any messages from Heaven, so we’ve got to stay alert ourselves, vigilant in being sure we’re leading the life that we truly want to lead.
Rabbi Levi Langer is the spiritual leader of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim