I don't mean to be flippant, but only to underscore the undeniable strangeness of much of the material in these portions. It's remote from our daily experience.
For the affliction, known as tzara'as, that manifests itself in these various and specific ways (on the skin, clothing and walls), is indicative of a spiritual malady, not a medical condition--ancient or modern. As our Sages in the Talmud explain, tzara'as was a divine punishment for various forms of "anti-social behavior," including loshon ha'ra (malicious slander of one's fellow man), arrogance, robbery, and sexual immorality. (Artscroll Chumash, Stone Edition, p. 610, based on Arachin 16a) It was a supernatural phenomenon, and therefore, appropriate (and limited) to the earlier days of our nation when the Temple stood and the connection between the physical and the spiritual was far more openly revealed.
Which means that while those (still widespread) sins mentioned above do damage one's soul even today, and give rise to a "spiritual" tzara'as, as it were (as the Chofetz Chayim explains), their physical manifestation in the form described in these portions is now absent. While introspection and self-correction are appropriate responses to any affliction (according to the Talmud), don't hesitate also to call your skin doctor should strange spots appear on your hand or face...or your favorite local pressure cleaner [like JEM, Inc.] should unsightly red and green blotches crop up on your walls!
But we should still study the portion carefully, even if we are unlikely to encounter tzara'as in our everyday lives. For all the verses of the Torah contain wisdom and instruction.
I'll give you one beautiful example.
The Torah describes what a person was supposed to do if he saw something suspicious on his walls:
The Talmud notes the cumbersome phraseology ("he, to whom the house belongs"). The Torah could much more simply have written, "The owner shall come…" What are we being taught by the extra words?
The Talmud (Yoma 11b
and Arachin 16a) explains that the words allude to an ugly character trait
of the homeowner; they reveal to us the very attitude on his part that
caused the Almighty to send this punishment upon him. Rather than
letting others share in his wealth and possessions, he believes that he
alone is the one to whom the house belongs! Since (as one of the
Talmudic texts describes the scenario) he has pretended that he doesn't even
have the belongings that his fellow man asked to borrow, G-d exposes his
treachery by requiring him to empty the house…and those possessions he
willfully withheld from his neighbor are now out on the lawn (or sidewalk)
for everyone to see!
As my kids love to sing (nearly bringing tears to my eyes each time they do), "Avraham's ohel (tent) had four doors; in and out the people went. He gave them food, and helped them rest. Who will be Avraham's guest?" Now, that is the paradigm of a (Jewish) home, and the most eloquent epitaph for an unequaled servant of G-d! You can be sure there was never a spot of tzara'as on the walls of Avraham's tent.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his classic introduction to Judaism, Nineteen Letters, expands on the same theme:
I'll be the first to
tell you that I myself am far from the ideal Hirsch (or my daughter, with
her Day School ditty) so movingly presents. But I can't think of a
more beautiful goal to aim for in life, or a better summary of what G-d
wants from us Jews--His holy nation.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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