Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
The Midrash Rabbah quotes Rav Simlai who explains the sequence of the laws of ritual impurity as they are presented in this week’s parshiyos, Tazria and Metzora. He explains that the laws of human birth follow the rules of impurity of lowly creatures such as animals and insects to convey that if man is unworthy, he is told that even a gnat has preceded him. He attaches this idea to the passuk in Tehillim 139:5: “You formed me prior and after.” Hashem contemplated the creation of the human being before everything else because he is the central purpose of the universe. However, in actuality, he was created physically at the tail end of the creation to indicate the possibility that he can sink beneath the level of animals.
This dichotomy of greatness and lowliness was understood by the thinkers of all times. Judaism sees this dilemma as a charge. Man must elevate himself and know that he can rise above all else, but that without work and vigilance, he will be drawn down to the basest level of existence. The charge is to be holy, to refine one’s personality and character, to overcome base temptations, but to continue rising much higher than that.
A Jew must understand that his charge is even greater than other humans. Hashem expects him to become a righteous person, both religiously and socially. It is not good enough to be honest, good and kind. He must be learned in Torah, scrupulous in his observance and refined in his thoughts, speech and interactions. This is a very tall order and it takes a lifetime to accomplish. A lifetime will suffice if one is engaged in the process. If man is distracted, then he will miss his mark and be a disappointment to his Maker.
Tazria and Metzora contain the main body of the laws of tzaraas, often translated as leprosy. This is because it is described as a discoloration and lesions of the skin and translators felt that it matched the known affliction of leprosy which was considered highly contagious and often led to lepers being segregated and quarantined. Some anti-Semites even used these laws to “prove” the old Greek canard that Jews were driven from Egypt by the Egyptians because they had contracted leprosy from swine and that is reflected in the ritual impurity which Jews attached to both pigs and leprosy.
In reality, tzaraas has nothing to do with leprosy or contagion of any sort; it is a supernatural phenomenon that existed in ancient times only and manifested itself as impurity only in the Jewish people. It served as a “spiritual report card” notifying a person when he fell short of his mission. This happened only in the period when Hashem’s presence was more apparent in the world. In our time when Hashem does not reveal His involvement in an apparent way, tzaraas is no longer found. The laws are in the Torah to remind us of a time when people received clearer Divine direction.
In our time, we must examine ourselves and see if we are falling short of Hashem’s expectations. The current crisis that we are experiencing has stripped away a lot of material things which we take for granted as absolutes. We can use the opportunity to examine our lives and our priorities and realign them with Hashem’s expectations. In this way, our actions will reveal that we have gotten the message.