This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, continues the discussion in last week’s portion of the detection and treatment of a disease named tzara’at. Unlike many other Hebrew words, the origin of this tzara’at is uncertain. The Septuagint translated this word as lepra, meaning ‘a scaly condition’. This word was associated in the Middle Ages with a particular type of skin condition called leprosy.1 However, it is clear from the various Biblical references to the term and from the various descriptions of it in last week’s and this week’s Torah portion that tzara’at is not limited to leprosy and it includes other types of skin diseases as well as some forms of fungal infections that affect objects such as clothes and walls.
In the Bible, as in other ancient Near Eastern traditions, tzara’at was considered a punishment inflicted on a person as a result of committing sins against God.2 We find a hint of God’s involvement in the infliction of tzara’at in the wording of this week’s Torah portion. God warns Moses that “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (Lev. 14:34). Although it is not clear here that the tzara’at of the wall is a punishment, it is clear that God is the one who inflicts the plague upon the house. According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an eighth-century translation of the Torah into Aramaic, the reason for the house plague is the building of a house with stolen materials. Midrash Tanhuma (Metzora 12) claims that the plague serves as an early warning for the person. If the person repents for his sins then all should be well, but if not then the plague will affect his body next.
In the book of Numbers (12:1–6) we read that when Miriam launches a leadership challenge against Moses, her brother, God inflicts tzara’at upon her. Miriam is healed only after a personal plea by Moses to God and after seven days of tense waiting in shame outside the camp. The Midrash (Sifrei Zuta 12) explains that Miriam had tzara’at as a result of her slander of Moses and his wife (Num. 12:1). Targum Pseudo-Jonathan warns us that Miriam was inflicted because she accused Moses of something he did not commit. The Targum warns us that we should be careful not to accuse others falsely. 3 Perhaps the Targum borrowed here from the Midrashic commentary on the first encounter between Moses and God in the book of Exodus. When Moses complains that the People of Israel will not listen to his message, God momentarily inflicts tzara’at upon Moses’s hand. The Midrash explains that this is a punishment for Moses’ claim that the people of Israel will not listen to him, and concludes that if you attempt to suspect or accuse an innocent person then you could be punished with a physical affliction.
But then we have Biblical case where God inflicts skin disease upon the innocent. There was a man in the land of Uz. His name was Job. That man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. Job had everything he needed in life; health, wealth, status and children. Even God noticed Job’s superior righteousness and faultlessness, but unfortunately so did Satan who claimed that the reason Job was so pious is that he had everything. ‘So long as he is rich, claimed Satan ‘he will be righteous, but if you take away what he has he will curse you’ (cf. Job 1:10–11).
God and Satan make a bet, and God gives Satan permission to take away everything that Job possesses. Satan then inflicts a series of calamities on Job that include the loss of his children, his wealth and finally his health. When Job still refuses to curse God, Satan inflicts leprosy upon him. Job is condemned to sit in the ashes of burned rubbish outside of the city and scratch himself.
The effects of this skin disease upon Job, as we might expect, is devastating. According to one commentary, he becomes a social outcast. He is unable to enter the city, or any other city and he therefore must live outside of its walls. He is neither in nor out. He is unable to participate in the social activity of the city because of fear of infection and because he must attend to his disease constantly. The disease takes over his entire life.
This is indeed the case with many other diseases, whether they are infectious or not. For example, those who are affected by stroke might lose some of their ability to express themselves and therefore lose the ability to interact with others. Those affected by physical disabilities may find themselves trapped in their homes, so that that even a trip to the shop could be an impossible task.
We must relate to the Rabbinic treatment of the causes for leprosy as a literary device for understanding of the need for strong ethical values. We should not treat them as an explanation of the reasons for peoples’ physical condition. Before we pass such judgement on others, we must remember Job and his terrible suffering despite his blamelessness. We must therefore reach out our hands to those who are in need or pain and make the extra effort of including those who are on the fringes of society because of their physical or mental condition.
1Based on G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 1981, p828
2J. Milgrom, commentary on Numbers 12:10 in Numbers: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, 1990.
3Pseudo-Jonathan on Deuteronomy 14:9
Previously published in 2008
Rabbi Yuval Keren
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.