The Rabbis taught that there are ten reasons why a person contracts tzara’at: idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, desecrating God’s name, cursing in God’s name, stealing from the public, stealing something belonging to someone else, arrogance, gossip, and viewing others in an unnecessarily negative light.
While often translated as leprosy, tzara’at was a growth that afflicted skin, hair, clothing, and stone walls. It is a source of ritual-impurity, and Parashat Metzora explains the ritual procedures of how to restore a status of ritual-purity after tzara’at. The only places in the Torah that we see tzara’at, other than descriptions of its occurrence and the rituals to address it, is when Moshe is speaking with God at the burning bush, and when Miriam is punished for speaking ill of Moshe and his wife.
For the Rabbis, tzara’at is always a physical manifestation of a psycho-spiritual challenge. And science confirms, time and time again, that our emotional and spiritual state has a direct impact on our physical experience. Seemingly, then, the idea of the rituals is to help a person transition back into physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health after this experience. The rituals involve sacrifices, and sacrifices take physical resources. The question emerges a few different places in the Torah regarding sacrifices, what happens when someone needs to bring a sacrifice but lacks the resources to do so?
In this Torah portion, it says: “If a person is dal, and their means are insufficient…” (Lev. 14:21). A number of commentators note that the word dal, often translated as “poor,” is not a word used in reference to financial status; rather, it is a word used for physical status. Perhaps we could best translate it as, “infirm.” So the question must be asked, why, if the Torah is clearly speaking of financial means does it use a word in reference to physical well-being?
The Natziv notes in his commentary that most sacrifices that a person might need to bring throughout the course of a year, a person waits until they go to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage festival and makes all of their sacrifices while they are there, rather than going to the Temple each time they need to make a sacrifice. However, with this particular sacrifice one does not have the luxury to wait, he also notes that were one to be in a state of poverty while experiencing the affliction, but then came into wealth when at the time they bring their sacrifice, would they bring the alternative offering as they were in a state of poverty when they experienced their affliction or a full offering because they are in a state of security at that moment?
Perhaps this insight gives us an understanding why the Torah is using language of physical infirmity when it is discussing financial insecurity. Did Miriam receive tzara’at as a divine punishment for arrogance, gossip, and viewing others in an unnecessarily negative light? Or did she allow the resentment and anger to fester within her until it festered upon her? Did Moshe receive tzara’at as a sign of divine power? Or did he experience the stress of his divine-appointed mission so acutely that it manifested upon him? Is the person in a state of financial lack being given a subsidy to make it easier for them to participate? Or is the Torah acknowledging that the stress and anxiety of financial poverty leads to physical infirmity?
This, to me, serves as a reminder that we interact with people who are suffering, and that suffering has internal ramifications for the sufferer, and it also can have external ramifications which then impact how others interact with that person. The Torah does not engage in language of tzara’at as a possibility, rather it seems to express it in terms of inevitability – when you experience tzara’at, as opposed to if you experience it. The rituals of removing the ritual-impurity of tzara’at are a reminder to all of us that we never fully know the internal suffering of another human being, nor can we be certain of the cause of their external suffering. It is therefore our responsibility, each and every one of us, to muster extreme empathy, compassion, and understanding for every person we encounter.
After all, suffering is inevitable in life, be it internal or external, and we need to rely on community to heal our afflictions.