Parshat Tazria-Metzora (5770)

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The Kohen shall look [at it]. And, behold the mispachath has spread on the skin. The Kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is tzaraat – Lev 13:8

A man who moved to a new town and said he was a Kohen was finally caught out when recognised by an old acquaintance. A court was promptly convened and the false Kohen was found guilty and sentenced to lashes. After the 49 lashes were given he stood up to leave, but the Dayan motioned to the one giving the lashes to start again. The false Kohen protested: “But you already gave me 49 lashes; why are you giving me another 49?” To which the Dayan replied: “Bi’mkom Levi!” **

In the double Torah portion we read this week we are given the laws of the Metzorah in great detail. Metzorah is the term used for a person afflicted with Tzaraat, commonly mistranslated as leprosy. Tzaraat was a fascinating disease, more spiritual than physical, which was an instant punishment for specific sins. The primary cause of the disease was Lashon Hara – talking negatively about others, and the symptoms were mainly discolorations of skin, clothing and even the house walls.

Usually we do not see instant results when we sin, thus giving us free choice whether to behave or not, however Lashon Hara was an exception at certain times in our history – and the instant punishment was Tzaraat. There are many complicated details, but basically once the skin lesions or discolorations are noticed the individual must visit a Kohen for an inspection. Either the Kohen will diagnose it as tzaraat immediately, or will order a one week quarantine, followed by a second inspection. If the marks are still present after a week the Kohen will banish the individual from the entire Israelite camp to begin the process of Teshuvah.

A week of solitary isolation later, assuming the mark has now gone, there begins a second week of ritual purification which includes shaving of all body hair, mikvah immersion and the bringing of offerings – all of which makes for a long and presumably traumatic process, ensuring the rate of recidivism is lower than in Mountjoy Prison. Now our sinner can re-enter society, healed and reformed, hopefully staying far away from slander and gossip.

So far, so good. However a strange anomaly appears in the laws of the Metzora. If we look closely at the laws involved we find that although the Kohen is the one who exiles the metzora, and pronounces him or her “tamay” – impure, it is not necessary for the Kohen himself to know the laws of Tzaraat! All he needs is to have a local expert – a mayven – who tells him if these signs are indeed signs of Tzaraat. If they are, and the Kohen pronounces him tamay – then and only then does he become impure. Even if ten experts are standing there all in agreement that these signs are clearly Tzaraat – only the Kohen can confer impure status and subsequent banishment.

So if we take this to the extreme you could have an absurd situation where a silver haired nonagenarian rabbi who is expert in the laws of Tzaraat CANNOT pronounce judgement, but an acne-plagued barmitzvah boy who just happens to be a Kohen yet knows nothing about Tzaraat CAN pronounce judgement (based on the expert’s assessment). This does not seem logical, let the senior expert make the decision rather than the junior Kohen!

The answer is a fascinating one: The consequences of being pronounced tamay are severe and embarrassing. Everyone will know that this individual has sinned and is being banished. Then he or she must leave everyone and everything behind and go into isolation, forbidden to talk to a single individual. This is an apt punishment for the sin committed – talking too much to others about others – but it is still a difficult consequence. The ONLY person qualified to pronounce this humiliating decision and to banish someone from society is the Kohen – the man of peace. The first Kohen was Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his overriding attribute was that of being a peacemaker. He was “oheiv shalom, ve’rodef shalom.” Aaron’s descendants bear that trait – some more, some less, but all share that peacemaking DNA, that genetic proclivity for Ahavat Yisrael.

So although the physical symptoms of the metzora need checking by a rabbi, sage or local mayven familiar with the laws, only a Kohen can pronounce him tamay. This ensures that the ruling is being made with love and not with any other bias.

And as it is with the Kohen, so it is with every one of us. When we are tempted to criticise or chastise another – let us make sure we do it as a Kohen – out of love and peace, and not simply because, “they are wrong and I am right.”

I close with a quote from a fascinating individual, Admiral H. G. Rickover, four-star Jewish Admiral in the US Navy, known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy. He would say: Great men talk about ideas; mediocre men talk about things; small men talk about people.

Shabbat Shalom

** When reading the Torah in shul after the Kohen, a Levi is called. If a Levi is not present, the same Kohen is called to the Torah again in his place “bi’mkom Levi – in place of a Levi.”

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