1. Tzara’at and its various forms
The Torah sections of Tazria and Metzora deal primarily with the laws of tzara’at. Tzara’at is a plague that is experienced by an individual as a consequence of improper behavior. It is often described as leprosy. This is because one of its forms is an affliction of the skin. The above passage describes one of the various skin afflictions that are symptomatic of tzara’at. The condition described in the passage is a bright, white-colored discoloration of a portion of the person’s skin.
However, tzara’at differs from leprosy not only in the particulars of its symptoms but also in treatment. Leprosy should be treated on a medical basis. Tzara’at can only be alleviated through the repentance of the afflicted individual. However, the Torah reveals another very fundamental difference between tzara’at and leprosy.
And when the plague of tzara’at is in a garment, whether it be a woolen garment, or a linen garment… (Sefer VaYikra 13:47)
When you come into the Land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, I will put the plague of tzara’at in a house of the land of your possession… (Sefer VaYikra 14:34)
The Torah explains that, unlike leprosy, the plague of tzara’at can afflict inanimate objects – one’s clothing and dwelling. Of course, the discolorations that are symptomatic of each form of tzara’at are unique. Skin, clothing, and dwellings each has its own characteristic discolorations. Also, the plague’s consequences differ according to the object afflicted. A person afflicted with tzara’at must engage in a period of mourning and repentance. A garment or a dwelling which is afflicted with the most advanced stages of tzara’at is destroyed.
2. The causes of tzara’at
As noted above, tzara’at is a consequence of improper behaviors. The Torah specifically identifies one behavior that may provoke the consequence of tzara’at – speaking about another person. The Torah tells us that Moshe’s sister, Miryam, was afflicted with tzara’at as a consequence of criticizing Moshe to others rather than speaking to him directly regarding her concerns over his behaviors. The Midrash and Talmud explain that in addition to tale-bearing and gossip, various other inappropriate behaviors may provoke the punishment of tzara’at.
The Talmud suggests that one of the behaviors that is punished by tzara’at of one’s dwelling is stinginess. The Talmud does not elaborate on the relationship between stinginess and the punishment of tzara’at. In other words, the Talmud leaves unexplained why this character flaw should be punished by this specific affliction. However, the Midrash does provide a fascinating explanation. Before considering the Midrash’s explanation, a brief introduction is required.
And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh. And if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of tzara’at. And the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. (Sefer VaYikra 13:3)
3. The unique role of the kohen in the laws governing tzara’at
The task of applying the laws regarding tzara’at is entrusted to the kohanim – the priests. This means that the kohanim are responsible to examine a person, garment, and dwelling for the presence of tzara’at. The kohen determines whether the affliction is present or not. When the afflicted individual believes that the condition has abated, he must enlist a kohen to perform an examination and determine whether in fact the tzara’at has passed. However, one of the interesting elements of the kohen’s role is that his pronouncement actually establishes the presence of tzara’at and renders the afflicted person, garment, or dwelling spiritually unclean. In this respect, the role of the kohen differs from the typical halachic decisor. In the more typical scenario, a legal issue is brought to the authority and he analyzes the facts to determine the law. His role is merely to apply halachic norms to the specific situation. For example, if he is brought a chicken and asked to determine its kashrut, he will examine the chicken and determine how halachic norms apply. His pronouncement does not make the chicken kasher of non-kasher. The chicken’s actual characteristics are determinant. The authority only evaluates how these norms apply to the specific chicken in question.
The kohen plays a much more significant role in the determination of the presence of tzara’at. He must evaluate the person, garment, or dwelling based upon the principles outlined in the Torah. However, the presence or absence of tzara’at are actually established and determined by the kohen’s pronouncement. In other words, a person who exhibits all of the symptoms associated with tzara’at is not deemed to have the condition until the kohen makes his pronouncement. Prior to the pronouncement – regardless of the degree of evidence of the presence of the affliction – the person is not regarded as unclean and is not subject to the regulation related to tzara’at. The kohen plays the same rule in determining that the condition has abated. The mere alleviation of the symptoms does not impact the stricken person’s status. Only the pronouncement of the kohen can impact the person’s status.
And the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go in to see the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made unclean. And afterward the priest shall go in to see the house. (Sefer VaYikra 14:36)
4. Tzara’at as a fitting response to stinginess
When a dwelling is suspect of exhibiting tzara’at and the kohen is summoned to investigate, the kohen does not immediately perform his task. He first directs that the dwelling be emptied of its contents. This is because the kohen’s pronouncement upon the dwelling will impact not only the home but also its contents. If the kohen determines that tzara’at is present, then the home and its contents will be rendered unclean. However, as explained above, it is not the existence of the symptoms that determine the existence of tzara’at. These symptoms – no matter how pronounced – do not make the dwelling unclean. Only the pronouncement of the kohen has the affect of conferring defilement. Therefore, in order to spare the contents on the home from defilement, the kohen directs that the dwelling be emptied of its contents prior to his inspection. If the home is declared to have tzara’at, the contents – now outside the home – will be unaffected.
Now, the comments of the Midrash can be introduced and appreciated. What behavior defines a person as stingy? How is stinginess distinguished from common greed? In his comments on the above discussion in the Talmud, Rashi explains that a person is defined as stingy if he is troubled by the prospect of his neighbor enjoying his possessions. He treats his possession as exclusively designated for his own use and pleasure. He is unwilling to share or lend his possessions to others. The Midrash suggests that a person afflicted with this failing will refuse to lend his possessions to others. He will claim that he does not have the object requested. His neighbor asks if he may borrow a shovel and the stingy person responds that he doesn’t have one. When asked for the loan of a cup of flour, he claims that he has himself run-out. The Midrash explains that tzara’at is a fitting consequence for this person. In order to save his possessions from defilement, he will empty them from his house. All of his possessions will be exposed to public scrutiny. His stinginess will be revealed!
Imagine the terrible paradox in which the stingy person finds himself when his home is afflicted with the symptoms of tzara’at. If he does not empty his dwelling of its contents, then his beloved possessions will be defiled. If he does empty his possessions into the street in front of his home, he will be exposed as the stingy, poor neighbor that he actually is! He is forced by his very love of his possessions to expose himself!
And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bait-Lechem in Yehudah went to sojourn in the field of Moav, he, and his wife, and his two sons. (Megilat Ruth 1:1)
5. Stinginess in the story of Megilat Ruth
The failing of stinginess plays an important role in the story of Ruth. Consideration of that role provides further insight into the impact of the trait. The above passage introduces Megilat Ruth. This passage and those that follow it tell the story of Elimelech and his family. Elimelech and his family left the Land of Israel to escape famine. His plan failed. Rather than saving himself and his family, Elimelech died in the Land of Moav. After his death, his sons married women from the region. The sons died thereafter. In addition to these tragedies, all of Elimelech’s wealth was lost. His widow Na’ami and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, eventually returned to the Land of Israel completely destitute.
Na’ami recognized that the tragedies that befell her family were punishments. However, she does not explicitly express her understanding of the reason for these terrible punishments. The Sages and commentators suggest various explanations for Elimelech’s punishments. Most of the explanations are based upon the above passage.
According to Midrash Lekach Tov, Elimelech and his sons were wealthy individuals. They were upright – even righteous – leaders. They cared for the people, providing food and support during the famine. However, as the famine persisted, they became alarmed. They feared that their personal resources would be exhausted through their support of their neighbors. Rather than allow themselves to be reduced to paupers, they decided to relocate to the Land of Moav. However, Lekach Tov explains the Sages differ as to the specific nature of their sin. According to Ribbi Elazar HaKafar, their sin was their stinginess. They could not turn away the poor. Yet, they could not bear to contemplate the loss of their wealth. Ribbi Eliezer disagrees. He argues that they sinned in abandoning the Land of Israel. He adds that they should have recognized that the famine was an expression of Hashem’s displeasure with His people. Elimelech and his sons should have responded by praying on behalf of their brothers.
6. Stinginess and its impacts
The dispute between these two Sages provides an important insight into the failing of stinginess. Ribbi Elazar HaKafar understands this sin to have been the cause of the punishment experienced by Elimelech and his family. Their attachment to their wealth was stronger than their compassion for their brothers. As a result, they abandoned their brothers in order to preserve their wealth. Of course, Ribbi Elazar HaKafar is not suggesting that Elimelech should have sacrificed the wellbeing of his own wife and sons in order to support the poor. He is suggesting that Elimelech acted prematurely. His attachment to his wealth and the resultant fears clouded his thinking. In short, Elimelech’s shortcoming was his stinginess and the related deficiency in his compassion for his brothers.
Ribbi Elazar disagrees. According to Ribbi Elazar, Elimelech’s sin actually involved a breach in his relationship with Hashem. The famine was not a chance occurrence. It was a Divine punishment. It was intended to communicate a message. It was intended to bring about a movement towards repentance. Elimelech and his sons – as leaders among the people – had an important role in this movement. It was their responsibility to lead the people in prayer and petition – the first step in the return to Hashem. They abandoned this role and acted as if the famine did not have a Providential character. Rather than responding to the call of Hashem’s message, they attempted to sever their ties to His people and their destiny. Their sin was motivated and founded upon stinginess but it was expressed in a profound breach in their relationship with Hashem.
The message communicated by Lekach Tov is that stinginess and the associated lack of compassion and empathy are serious failings of character. However, they also inevitably lead to one’s alienation from the community and its Divine mission. It discourages meaningful participation in charity and acts of kindness. Thereby, it severs the afflicted person’s relationship with the community and its endeavors to serve Hashem and draw near to Him.
1. Mesechet Erachin 16a.
2. It is noteworthy that this aspect of the laws governing tzara’at is very fitting. As mentioned above, the Torah explicitly associates tzara’at with the sin of gossip or tale-bearing. One of the reasons that these sins are so pervasive and difficult to arrest is that they are committed through speech. Although people understand that speech can be harmful and damaging, it is somehow difficult to maintain constant cognizance of the destructive power of mere words. The person stricken with tzara’at is provided with a compelling lesson regarding the power of speech. It is not his physical condition that renders him unclean. It is the pronouncement – the words and speech – of the kohen that actually determine his status.
3. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Erachin 16a.
4. Midrash Rabba, Sefer VaYikra 17:2.
5. Rabbaynu Tuvia ben Eliezer, Midrash Lekach Tov, Introduction to Megilat Ruth.