Shaya Cohen -


Confusions Over Leprosy

I think of myself as a capable thinker, but I am always worried about creating my own echo chamber, where I seek only affirmation of what I already think, and rejection of other ideas because they do not conform to the opinions I have already formed. The internet, of course, makes this risk even worse, because we can all much more easily find safe havens (like Ricochet) where disagreements are only kibitzing around the edges instead of at the heart of the matter.

And so I get this amazing thrill when I discover that something I thought I knew is actually wrong. That revelation confirms that I am still able to change my mind based on new information. More importantly, I have grown, spiritually and intellectually.

This happened to me this weekend, when contemplating a subject in the Torah that I thought I understood. The subject tends to make non-Torah readers’ eyes glaze over; what could possibly be interesting about the exhaustive discussion of what the King James Bible translates as “leprosy?”

This translation, you will not be surprised to learn, is not only wrong, but is also highly misleading. The physical ailment of having skin turn white in the Torah has nothing to do with medicine or bodily health or the disease called “leprosy.” It is instead described as a physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment, of something a person has done that is wrong and should be corrected after a period of reflection and soul searching. Let’s call it tzaraas, the transliteration of the Hebrew word.

So far so good. This has been my understanding for years. But what causes this ailment, tzaraas? The answer is partially found in the guide the Torah provides for its cure.

This shall be the ritual for [one with tzaraas] at the time that he is to be cleansed…the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. (Numbers 14 2-8)

The parallel for this screams out, from after Cain kills his brother:

Then [G-d] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! …. The LORD said to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him. (Gen. 4:10,15)

Abel is the dead bird – his blood calls out from the ground (the earthen vessel), and Cain, the living bird, is marked. He wanders the earth, just as the marked bird does.

So my personal understanding of the origin of tzaraas comes from this understanding: that harming someone else is on the same continuum as Cain killing his brother. That case, of course, was physical violence. But we know that words are also a way to harm someone – at the very least words can dim a person’s spirit and hopes, and in extremis words can lead to someone’s death.

The common interpretation is that tzaraas comes from something so slight as gossip, of evil speech about someone. This is well supported in the text as well, by the only two documented cases of something actually receiving the ailment: Moses and Miriam.

In Moses’ case, G-d tells Moses at the burning bush to go tell the people that G-d has heard their cries, and Moses is acting as G-d’s emissary to free them from slavery to Pharaoh. Moses is skeptical:

And Moses answered and said: ‘But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.’ … And the LORD said furthermore unto him: ‘Put now thy hand into thy bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was tzaraas, as white as snow. (Exodus 4: 1, 6)

Moses is punished here, not because he is prideful, but because he says something negative about the Jewish people. And G-d responds by giving him a “taste” of the punishment one receives for harming someone else by saying negative things about them. Moses contracts tzaraas.

So the traditional explanation remains: negative speech is murder writ small. When we gossip about others, we create a reality around that negative perception, in our own minds and in the minds of all who hear our words. That negative reality makes it harder for people to grow and improve. One could think of it as a child in school. If you tell a student that they are terrible at math, then you greatly diminish their ability to excel in that topic.

The other example of someone receiving tzaraas is when Miriam and Aaron speak about Moses:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:1-2)

G-d is incensed with their words, and Miriam is plagued with tzaraas.

This, too, supports the idea that negative speech is the cause of this ailment, of tzaraas.

But what happened this weekend is that I realized that this actually is confusing cause for effect, that the normal explanation, of negative speech, actually misses the point of the underlying problem. This is that point:

What the stories of Cain, Moses at the bush and Miriam’s criticisms all have in common is not negative speech itself, but the mindset that led to that speech: insecurity and lack of courage.

Cain does not merely kill his brother. Cain acts after he has his feelings hurt by G-d’s rejection of his offering. He acts in response to losing. His action is ultimately born of insecurity.

Moses’ statement that the people would not believe him was actually a statement about himself and even about G-d’s veracity! Yes, “they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.” is negative speech about the people. But it is also negative speech about G-d’s own promise, as well. Perhaps most importantly, it is also negative speech about Moses’ view of his own capabilities and limitations! Moses was punished for not having confidence in himself.

Miriam’s negative speech is similarly born from insecurity about herself. She criticizes her brother for marrying an outsider (which is normal, if not admirable, xenophobia), and then she says, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” She calls for equivalence when there is none, and it sounds very much like Cain’s grievance when his brother’s offering is accepted when his own was rejected: “Am I not at least as important/valuable?”

If tzaraas is caused by lack of confidence, then it turns the classic explanation on its head. Gone are the ideas that somehow arrogance or lack of humility cause tzaraas. The opposite is true! Each of the people connected to this ailment acted from feelings of comparative inadequacy, of fear that they were not able to do the right thing. A secure and confident person is able to comprehend and appreciate his or her own worth without needing to compare to other people. A bully acts from a core fear, a need to dominate others. But a truly secure person can exist without feeling the need to make others feel small.

A part of the relevant commandments is the statement that buildings can also get tzaraas. But the only ones that do are buildings made of stone, buildings made to last a long time, much longer than a normal human lifespan. Why would a building, as opposed to a person, contract tzaraas? And I think the answer is found in the mindset of a person who lives in a grand stone home, one that is built to last through the ages. Such a home can be a place of love, of security and growth. But it can alternatively act as a closed fortress, a defensive wall behind which a person shields themselves from confronting their fears and insecurities. Buildings are funny that way; they truly do change how the people inside them view the world and their role within it. Buildings are connected to tzaraas because they can be the cause of the mental confusion of their inhabitants, in the same way that insecure middle-aged men need shiny cars and young women in order to avoid the reality of aging, of a life in its final laps. These props are not used by people who are comfortable in their own skins.

This new understanding turns the ailment of tzaraas on its head. If a person is put in isolation to consider what they have done wrong, then they should take that time to learn to appreciate themselves and their own, unique value to G-d – a value that has been validated by the fact that G-d has singled them out by touching them with tzaraas. (When tzaraas is diagnosed, it is called a nega, a “touch.”) Getting tzaraas is being touched by G-d, showing His desire for a connection. The ailment is itself proof that G-d cares about each person, and seeks a personal connection with that person, one that has no bearing on how G-d interacts with someone else, even if the other relationship is with one’s own brother, one such as Abel or Moses.

The entire sequence in the Torah is to remind us of the need to build our own, unique relationship with our Creator, to not feel the need to compare that relationship to one that anyone else may have. And it is a reminder that G-d punishes us for thinking less of ourselves, for doubting what we can achieve in our time on this earth. So when G-d touches us with tzaraas and we are forced into isolation to contemplate our lives and mistakes, the purpose of that isolation is not to emerge from that isolation by thinking less of ourselves, but instead to emerge with the newfound confidence that G-d expects us to be more confident and ambitious. If we truly see ourselves as G-d’s partners in this world, then as long as we live, we can wield enormous power.

P.S. The other elements in the ceremony to end tzaraas are the same as with the red heifer: a crimson thread, hyssop and some cedar-wood. The symbolism here directly connects with the reasons for the rituals in the first place:

The cedar wood and grass represent the two opposites of the plant kingdom. The cedar is the oldest and tallest flora in the ancient Middle East, fixed in place. The grass, on the other hand, is small and rapid-growing, short-lived and adaptable. And both were created on the third day of creation – the day G-d made life itself. They are book-ends to represent the entire vegetable kingdom, everything created on that day when G-d made life.

Together the cow and the plants combine the items created in the first creation: all plants and animals, save only for mankind.

2b: The stuff described as “crimson yarn” is trickier. It is used together with the cedar and grass in another ritual, the one cleansing a person of another spiritual ailment; these three go together. But why?

The answer is found in the words themselves. The crimson yarn contains within its first root word the same root as the word in Hebrew for “time.” (Gen. 8:11, 24:11) And the second root word comes from the word for “second” – as in, “a second chance.” The crimson yarn is “Another/a second time.” Together with the plants, it represents time travel back to the birth of life on the earth. The person who receives the ritual is given a second chance, a do-over.

(another answer is that the crimson reminds us of the blood that is spilled in murder, the blood of Abel that “cried to G-d from the earth,” and indeed the blood of any dead body. Death is a loss and one that we should never take pleasure from.)

The hyssop and cedar wood are the bookends for the plant kingdom: from a low grass to the tallest trees. They are a reminder that mankind’s task is to elevate the earth toward the heavens, overcoming the separation caused on the second day of creation, the day that G-d did NOT call “good”.  Plants seek to unify. But murder and damaging speech seek to separate people, to cause divisions.

The plant kingdom is also a reminder that the earth is supposed to used by people for the purpose of life (from the smallest to the tallest grasses), and NOT as the place from where Abel’s blood calls out. The earth is a source of life energies, and while the cycle of life includes death, the Torah tells us that in order to leave the state of tzaraas or the spiritual unreadiness that comes after contact with a dead body, we are supposed to accentuate positive, growing life, emerging from the earth as on the third day of creation. The day vegetation is created is the day when life is created on this earth, and life is the antidote to physical death as well as the small deaths that occur when people use negative speech.

The entire ritual then, is one of rebirth, calling us back to the time before there was the murder of Abel by Cain.

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