Parashat Tazria

Leprosy and Other Plagues

We can sanctify our houses, clothes, and bodies by creating a more just society.

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In this week's parashah, Tazria, we read about the disease tza'ra'at, commonly translated as leprosy. What is peculiar about this skin disease is that it not only afflicts humans but also clothing (Leviticus 13:47) and houses (Leviticus 14:33-57). It is not only people's bodies that are struck with tza'ra'at, but also their possessions. What is the significance of this peculiar feature of tza'ra'at and what does it tell us about our society?

The rabbis understood tza'ra'at to be a punishment from God for various transgressions, including, most famously, wicked speech (lashon ha-ra), but also pride, deceit, false witness, bloodshed, wicked thoughts, pretending to have knowledge of Torah, causing discord, miserliness, announcing but not giving charitable donations, defamation of character, idol worship, blasphemy, and robbing the public (Leviticus Rabbah 16:1,5; 17:2,3).

Corrupt Societies

Together these many sins point to a society that is falling apart: one filled with selfishness, deceit, disharmony, and violence. Indeed, the theme of deceit, predominant in the above list of evils, strikes at the very core of what is essential for a society to function--namely our trust in our fellow citizens, leaders, and social institutions. 

The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hassidic Rebbe, takes the theme of wicked speech even further, indicating that the plague of tza'ra'at results not only from evil things one has said, but also from things one should have said but didn't. That is, it is not only that acts of evil are being committed, but as importantly, acts of good are being omitted. In particular, it is the failure to protest and oppose evil rampant in society that leads to the plague.

Tza'ra'at strikes beyond the body, then, because its causes and their effects are more than personal. Rather, these sins and crimes are profoundly destructive for the entire society in which they take place.

Societies filled with deceit, discord, and violence end up suffering from "plagues" that strike houses, clothes, and bodies--symbolic representations of shelter, sustenance, and healthcare. An effective and moral society, one that speaks out against injustice, will be a society in which each of these necessities is attainable by all people.

Indeed, the midrash makes clear the consequences of social and national destruction in its reading of this parashah, where it interprets the story of a house plagued with tza'ra'at as referring to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people (Leviticus Rabbah 17:7). The sins of tza'ra'at, then, lead not only to personal and societal suffering, but also to national calamity.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.