Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Walk Article

LEPERS

Metzora-5771

Rabbi David Walk

 

            This week's parsha continues the discussion about the disease which is often identified with leprosy.  But I'm not so sure.  There are both similarities and differences.  Ultimately these ailments are most probably different, after all the Biblical tzara'at seems to be described as a spiritual malady.  Leprosy is very physical.  However, there is one thing that these sicknesses share in common, and that is that those afflicted were pariahs.  No one would associate with either.  They were banished from the camp or the community.  Leper colonies have existed into modern times, and Jerusalem still has one.  We still use the term leper to describe those who are rejected by society.

            The disease that we call leprosy is caused by a bacterium, and generally only affects those with compromised immune systems.  It's most common in places with poor conditions such as inadequate bedding, contaminated water and insufficient diet.  Apparently our Sages knew about these factors as well because the Talmud asks why there wasn't any leprosy in Babylonia, and answers "because they eat turnips and drink beer and bathe in the Euphrates (Ketubot 77b)."  Then again there are sources in the Midrash which state that there was leprosy in Israel for totally spiritual reasons.   Either there was an argument between these sources or they recognized two different phenomena, one spiritual and one physical.  We use the same name (tzara'at) for both, because they look so alike.  I like the second approach and for the rest of this article I'm only going to discuss the spiritual form of this ailment.

            Our Sages identified specific spiritually negative behavior with outbreaks of tzara'at.  Most people who have attended Jewish schools readily identify tzara'at as a punishment for gossip or lashon hara.  This identification doesn't come from this week's Torah reading.  Instead it comes from Numbers chapter twelve.  Over there Miriam speaks ill of her brother Moshe, and contracts tzara'at.  This story is considered so significant that it is counted among the six remembrances, which many Jews recite every day after the morning service.  However, Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) strongly suggested that the importance of that story is not the correlation between tzara'at and lashon hara, but Miriam's questioning the prophecy of Moshe.   Less well known is the fact that there are eleven sins which our Sages list as contributing to the outbreak of tzara'at.  These are : idolatry, desecration of God's name, adultery, stealing, slander, bearing false witness, a judge who corrupts justice, false swearing, illegal entry, thinking false thoughts, and one who creates hostility between brothers" (Tanchuma, Metzora,4). Another Midrash agrees that there eleven transgressions, but has a different list adding blasphemy, bloodshed, rudeness of spirit, and defilement of God's name (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, 7:5)."  However neither list includes the sin of the second most famous case of tzara'at in our Bible, and that is the case of Uzziah.  He was king of Judah for fifty-two years in the eighth century before the Common Era.

            His curious case brings new understanding to the affliction of tzara'at.  Both the books of II Kings and II Chronicles state that his early reign was successful both physically and spiritually.  And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord…God caused him to prosper (II Chronicles 26:4-5).  Then things took a turn for the worse and he was afflicted with tzara'at for the rest of his life.  Chronicles gives a detailed account of what happened.  After defeating many enemies, Jerusalem was fortified and improved.  Uzziah felt good about himself, and enjoyed great popularity.  Unfortunately it went to his head.  And when he became strong, his heart became haughty until he became corrupt, and he trespassed against the Lord, and he came into the Temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar (verse 16).  A major cause of tzara'at stems from one of the greatest shortcomings of successful individuals, arrogance.  Uzziah believed that his great success should allow him to break one of the greatest taboos in Jewish tradition.  We Jews invented separation of powers, and hold that principle very dear.  When Uzziah tried to combine the power of the king with the status of the Cohanim, disaster struck.  His vanity was thrown to the dust and he spent the rest of his life in shame and disgrace, banished from the city which he had so lovingly renovated.

            One might think that contracting tzara'at might end one's useful life, but that doesn't have to be true.  This powerful idea is the topic of this week's Haftorah.  During a horrendous famine, which actually lead to cannibalism, in the northern kingdom of Israel caused by a siege by the Aramean army (circa 760 BCE), four lepers are outside the city.  Because our Sages can't stand leaving unidentified characters populating our Bible, these four men are identified as Gehazy and his three sons (not to be confused with Fred MacMurray).  Gehazy got his tzara'at from avarice, and is referred to in last week's Haftorah.  He is also referenced in the Mishneh as one of those people who has lost his portion in the world to come (Sanhedrin 90a).  This brings me to the story.

            These four had apparently lived off of food discarded from the city, but now there was nothing for them to eat.  Out of desperation they approach the Aramean camp.  It's find food or die, for them.  Lo and behold, the Arameans have all fled, leaving everything behind, including huge stores of food.  In spite of their outcast status, they report this amazing news to the starving city.  They say to one another, "We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, yet we are keeping quiet. If we wait until daybreak, we will have sinned. Now, let us go and relate this in the king's palace (II Kings 7:9)."  The king is suspicious of a trap, and only sends a military scout party before informing the entire city of the great news.  I would love to think that if this was indeed Gehazy, that with this act and concern for his brethren that he regained his lost portion. 

            How should I behave towards a society that despises me?  This is a question Jews have had to ask themselves for millennia.  These lepers respond that we must act like honorable people.  Society may view me as a pariah, but I have to be a mensch.           


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