One of the better known rabbinic midrashim connects the disease of leprosy with the sin of slandering: that is, God afflicts the slanderer with leprosy (B.T. Arakhin 15b). Underlying the connection is the close resemblance in the Hebrew words for each. According to Resh Lakish, who authored this midrash in the third century long after the Temple had been leveled, the biblical term for leprosy, metzora (Leviticus 14:1), is but a compressed form of the rabbinic term for slandering, motzi shem ra (literally, to give someone a bad name). Even to an ear untrained in Hebrew, the similarity in sounds of this clever identification is apparent.
I suspect that several thoughts converged in Resh Lakish’s mind to prompt him to make this interpretive move. First, the exceptional character of the noun metzora. The common term for leprosy in our parasha and in the rest of the Torah is tzara’at (Leviticus 13:2, 3, 8). The oddity attracts attention. Second, what induces Resh Lakish to read that odd form as motzi shem ra is not just a tenuous resemblance in sound, but also the precedent of Miriam’s fate: For after joining Aaron in denouncing their brother, Moses, for having taken a foreign wife, she is struck down with a severe case of leprosy (Numbers 12:1–13). Thus, the wilderness narrative already identifies the disease as punishment for slander.
Finally, with no prospect for a quick restoration of the Temple, Resh Lakish, like many a modern rabbi, must have struggled with the relevance of our parasha for a community where history had devalued the sanctity of its space. To shift the focus of the text from purity to morality, from the physical realm to the spiritual was to open up expanses of new meaning. Thus, for example, the Talmud understood the exclusion and isolation of one diagnosed to be a leper as befitting a person guilty of slander. The Torah stresses the solitariness of his exile: “He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:46).” Read morally, this twofold fate – exclusion from the community and isolation from others – corresponds to the rending of relationships caused by slander. As the slanderer–turned–leper distanced colleagues, friends and family members from one another, so is he now destined to live out his days at a remove from civil society and human companionship (B.T. Arakhin 16b).
Still we have not exhausted the significance of Resh Lakish’s move. To ground illness in morality is to diminish the chaos of human existence. God governs by the principle of reward and punishment. In that spirit, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai asserted that at Mount Sinai when the people of Israel accepted God’s covenant wholeheartedly, they knew neither disease nor deformity. Yet at the beginning of Numbers (5:2), God instructs Moses “to remove from camp anyone with an eruption [i.e. leprosy] or a discharge.” Whence these sudden infirmities? Answers Rabbi Hoshiah that since Sinai the Israelites had repeatedly spoken ill of their leaders (Vayikra Rabba 18:4), which was surely the case. More broadly, another midrash claims anonymously that skin diseases in general derive from anyone of ten cardinal sins such as idolatry, sexual perversity, murder, blasphemy, and theft as well as arrogance, slander and greed (Vayikra Rabba 17:3).
And what God decrees, God can nullify. In our distress (like Job, who curses the day he was born), we turn to God for relief. Aaron contritely beseeches Moses to effect healing for their sister with a gripping image of what it felt like to be devoured by leprosy: “Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” Moses, the prophet and healer, accedes with a terse prayer wrapped in grief which restores Miriam to health (Numbers 12:11–16). On the basis of that model, we dare to ask God daily to heal us or our loved one in the weekday amida (silent devotion). Nor is it accidental that the prayer for the sick (birkhat holim) constitutes the eighth berakha of the amida, a number designed to remind us of the healing that attends circumcision as a rite of passage on the eighth day, as stipulated again in our parasha (12:3).
Nevertheless, reality repeatedly defies the moral calculus of the Rabbis. There is no evident correlation between health and virtue or sickness and vice, at least as long as the canvas is restricted to this life. In our experience, suffering prevails with a vengeance. Is this not why the Rabbis admitted the book of Job into the canon — to acknowledge that truth and warn against any theology that shrinks the grandeur and sublimity of God for human comfort? At the end of his protest, Job is given but one assurance: that moral order does exist even if we can’t begin to comprehend it.
The Rabbis, on the other hand, take refuge in the conviction that life does not end at death. With a minimum of speculation, they constantly affirm that the injustice that stains the pages of human history will be rectified beyond the grave by God directly. And it is that expanded canvas that allows Maimonides to declare toward the end of Yigdal: “God grants reward to those who lead a noble life, while punishing transgressors sinning wantonly (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 53).”
The very incompleteness of creation, though, is what rouses the Rabbis to make of humankind God’s partner in its perfection. By striving to better the human condition, we attain our individual salvation. Part of that responsibility is not only to visit the sick, but also to heal them. We are not to rely on prayer alone. Maimonides derives that injunction from the biblical admonition to restore to our neighbors any property they might have lost (Deuteronomy 22:1–3), including, by extension, their good health. (See his commentary on Mishna Nedarim 4:4). The Talmud explicitly forbids a scholar from residing in a town that has no physician (B.T. Sanhedrin 17b). By the Middle Ages, it had in fact become customary for a Jewish community to provide its residents with a certified physician and a hospital. Jewish law sanctioned health care for all as a communal obligation, a standard yet to be attained in the United States. In sum, much of the richness of this week’s parasha lies in its afterlife.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tazri’a – M’tzora are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.