The metzora is quarantined. He must stay out of all the camps [Shechina, Levi & Yisrael]. In this regard, he occupies a unique status. No other personality experiences such total quarantine. Varying degree of the same notion exist for the zav and ba’al keri, but we apparently reserve our greatest ire for the metzora.
.. that even other unclean persons shall not dwell with him. [Pesachim 67a]
Why such special treatment?
Our Rabbis said: Why is he different from other unclean persons to dwell alone? Since by his slanderous tongue, he separated man from his wife, and a man from his fellow Jew, so he too will be separated. [Arachin 16]
The notion: The metzora personality creates division. Arachin 16a teaches that tzar’at comes for a possible seven sins:
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Because of seven things the plague of leprosy is incurred: [These are:] slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy.
The common denominator of all seven: sins that raise the self over all others, be it in deed, word or thought. The classic cheap thrill of Lashon HaRa reminds us of the drug addict who does not want to do the hard work to achieve that endorphin rush; he gets his high at the expense of society.
But it is not punishment alone that the Torah seeks. In its rehab process, the Torah unveils a three point plan for metzora therapy.
Badad – Alone. In his solitary confinement, the metzora tastes what he has wrought. His separation allows him to ponder the gravity of his actions. Perhaps, more significantly he has plenty of time to think about life itself. Alone is a good place to be when you need to figure things out. Our society does not know how to turn off the lights.
Korban – Why the unique sacrifice of the two birds – one that remains alive?
Wherein is the leper different that the Torah said: Two living clean birds [he should bring] so that he may become pure again? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: He did the work of a babbler, therefore let him offer a babbler as a sacrifice.[Arachin 16b]
The power of speech and its ability to be abused is a critical first lesson for the metzora. Hateful speech breeds, infects and festers. Words matter and names hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. Animal speech, the chirping birds, is not the name of the human game. We are intelligent beings and chatter matters – beckoning Onkelos’ definition of the nishmat chayim of Adam, the living soul being a speaking spirit.
Erez V’eizov – the Cedar and the hyssop (are dipped into the blood of the bird). It is a formula that appears in several Torah contexts. The first Korban pesach employs the hyssop, the red heifer employs both as does our metzora. The midrash teaches [Bamidbar Rabah]:
On what account is a leper cleansed with the aid of the tallest of tall trees and with the lowest of low ones, namely, with the cedar tree and the hyssop? He had been punished with leprosy owing to his having exalted himself like the cedar tree. Having humbled himself like the hyssop he was healed by the aid of a hyssop
Humility is the way out. The humble soul has room for others in his life. He feels the pain of other and celebrates in their smachot. His world becomes expansive and broad – full of room for others.
The other-focus becomes redemptive. It allows for salvation. Is it not interesting that one of our greatest redemptions in Tanach, against Aram, comes from 4 lepers waiting outside the camp [Melachim, 2:7]?
One final point: In the beginning of the journey, Hashem tells Moshe that He hears the cries of the people:
V’gam ani shamati et na’akat bnei Yisrael. I have also heard the groaning of the B’nei Yisrael, whom the Egyptians enslave, and I have remembered My covenant.
The Chassidim say: Why and also I have heard. Who else besides God? They give a remarkable answer – but first a story:
A man and his elderly father once fell into a dispute. They were very poor and lived in a shack with no heating. They only had one coat and the father felt that he should get to wear it since he was a frail old man, stuck all day in a house with no heat. The son felt that he should get the coat since he had to work outdoors to support the family. His father who was being supported by him was at least indoors out of the wind.
They couldn’t settle their dispute so they went to the Rabbi to seek his decision. Each one told the Rabbi, his side of the story. The Rabbi asked them to each return in two days and he would render his decision.
On the way home, the son started thinking to himself, “What am I doing? What sort of ‘Honor thy Father’ is this? How can I deny my own father this coat? He is sick and frail. I am healthy. If I get cold I can light a fire at the work site. He should get the coat.”
At the same time, the father started thinking to himself, “What am I doing? My son is working hard to support me. How can I let him do this and deny him the coat? If I get cold I can put on a sweater or a blanket or drink a glass of hot tea. He should get the coat.”
Each man now refused to wear the coat and insisted that the other wear it. Neither could convince the other so they went back to the Rabbi to ask him to rule on their new dispute. The Rabbi thought for a moment and said, “I have a spare coat. Why don’t I lend it to you and then you each can have a coat.” Now everyone could be happy.
The son then asked the Rabbi, “I do not mean to be disrespectful; rather, I am burning with curiosity. If you are going to offer your coat, why did you not offer it the first time we came here?”
The Rabbi replied, “The first time you came, you each said ‘I must have the coat’, so without thinking, it made me feel ‘I must have my coat’. The second time you came, you each said, ‘I don’t need the coat, I want the other one to have the coat’, so I felt ‘I don’t need the coat, I want the other one to have the coat’.
Hashem takes his cue from us. When a Jews hears the cry of the other, then God also hears the cry. Moshe, by your exhibition of care for Klal Yisrael – you have opened the Jewish heart. Now, I can hear their cries as well.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.