The main topic of this week’s Torah reading is tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The belief that leprosy is a biblical Divine punishment has become so widespread that I was once speaking to a group of nurses, and was asked if Judaism allows treatment of lepers, or if we must leave it as a sign of G-d’s will. A careful reading of the text clearly shows that the plague of tzara’athas no connection with leprosy.
Firstly, though the Torah does mention a case of a person who is completely covered from head to toe with tzara’at (who is actually considered tahor - ritually pure), the more common case of tzara’at is limited to a small patch of skin or hair. Furthermore, after describing tzara’at which may afflict a person, the Torah goes on to describe tzara’at of clothing, and tzara’at which affects buildings. No one has yet diagnosed a case of leprosy of a house. Finally the Torah explicitly gives permission, and in fact mandates going to a doctor and searching for a cure for an illness, in the cases of tzara’at mentioned in the Torah portion, the afflicted person must go to a Kohen for diagnoses and for treatment.
The only common feature of leprosy and tzara’at is that the Torah commands one who is afflicted with tzara’at to be exiled alone outside the town in which he or she lives. This is similar to the quarantine of lepers which existed in earlier times, and even today in some parts of the world. But the reason for the isolation in the case of tzara’at is not because of fear of the disease spreading.
As the physical world reflects the spiritual world. Tzara’at is a physical expression of a spiritual malady. This is the reason that the healing process must be through a Kohen not a doctor, and why it involves immersing in a Mikva and bringing a sacrifice.
The disease of tzara’at is not contagious, but the sin which causes it is. The main cause of tzara’at is speaking lashon hara about another person. Lashon Harais often translated as slander. In fact it is the sin of embarrassing someone else by publicising certain information about them that they would not wish for others to know, even if that information is 100% true. This is one of the most serious crimes mentioned in the Torah, comparable to the crime of murder or idol worship. It destroys society and can cause untold suffering and loss, both financial and in terms of status.
Someone who has caused this much damage to society must be made to realise the consequences of his or her actions. In biblical times a person was given gradual warnings, signs giving them a chance to improve their behaviour. First their house was afflicted with leprosy. If this did not motivate them to change their ways their clothing was affected. If they still were unable to learn their lesson they themselves contracted tzara’at. The Torah commands that someone who has this tzara’at must dwell alone outside the camp. This is a punishment which is appropriate to the crime. This person had caused a breakdown in society, therefore they were temporarily removed from society and forced to dwell alone. They were given a week to think about their actions and to repent, and if that failed they were given a second week, until they repented from their lifestyle of lashon hara.
Why do we no longer have this disease nowadays? Surely we are no better than the Jews of former times who were punished with tzara’at? The answer is that if only one or two people are speaking lashon hara, they can be effectively punished, and given a chance to think about the damage they have caused. When the whole of Western society is predicated on the concept of free speech and freedom of the press, regardless of the pain and damage that causes, it is impossible to have tzara’at as an effective punishment. Especially in the current lead up to the elections, when the future of this country is going to be decided by how effective the lashon harais! One could argue that the public have the right to know issues are important to the way someone would or could run Britain, but surely we do not need to know about every bit of sleaze that can be dredged up about anyone in the public eye?
Nowadays our lifestyles are so imbued with speaking and listening to lashon hara that we don’t even pay attention to what we are saying most of the time. How many people are careful about what they say, and how many times are we afraid of who might be listening over our shoulder? This week’s Torah reading gives us an annual reminder to be as careful about what comes out of our mouths as we are about what we put into them.