Tzara’at and Selfishness

Parshat Metzora deals with a peculiar condition called tzara’at that afflicts skin, surfaces of walls and clothing. This condition has long been erroneously translated into English as “leprosy.” However, tzara’at is not Hansen’s Disease, the clinical name for leprosy. For starters, the symptoms are not at all similar. Moreover, the rules associated with tzara’at do not make sense if the disease is contagious. For example, while someone whose skin is partially covered with the lesions of tzara’at is considered ritually unclean (tamei), a person who is entirely covered with the malady is not! Moreover, the malady affects architecture as well as skin: if the walls of a house show tzara’at then all of the contents of the home are put outside! (Leviticus 14:26). This is not the way to halt the spread of a contagious illness people are afraid of contracting. Rather, our ancestors in the ancient world saw it as an external symptom of a spiritual, even social malady. It is through this lens — not a contemporary perspective of infectious disease — that we can find some meaning in the study of tzara’at today.
The social issue underlying tzara’at is implied by its very name. A person who has tzara’at is called a metzora. According to rabbinic tradition, this word is a contraction of the Hebrew words motzi and ra, which loosely means “one who spreads slander”. Thus, the rabbis suggest, a person becomes afflicted with tzara’at as a consequence of spreading slander. Another midrash from the Talmud suggests that tzara’at is a punishment for selfishness (Arachin 16a). The haftarah (prophetic reading) associated with Parashat Metzora offers a story shedding light on this latter cause of tzara’at and indicating a possible reason why the “treatment” for it is isolation from the community.
In the haftarah (I Kings 7:3-20), four men afflicted with tzara’at are contemplating their future. Exiled from their city, which is under siege by the enemy army of Arab, they decide that they have nothing to lose by deserting their home and throwing in their lot with the enemy. But they approach the Aramean camp, they observe that it is completely abandoned. Their first reaction is to begin stealing all of the silver, gold and other items of value. But then one of the four points out that the news of the abandoned camp is critically important to the fate of the city: “We are not acting properly — today is a day of good news, yet we remain silent! If we wait until the dawn we will be judged as sinners. Now come, let us go and report to the king’s palace.” (I Kings 7:9)
Viewed through the cultural assumptions discussed above, this episode is a parable about selfishness versus selflessness. The four men are afflicted with tzara’at because of the sins of some unstated previous acts of selfishness. Their punishment is to be isolated from the rest of the community. The “treatment” that brings about a change within the four men is the very same thing as the punishment: namely, isolation from the community. The experience of being removed and separated from the community motivates the men to cease acting selfishly and begin to put the needs of the community ahead of their own. As a result of their “rehabilitation” the four men are redeemed, the enemy is scattered and the city of Samaria is saved from attack. This parable suggests that while selfishness leads to a kind of isolation, acts of sharing and generosity cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion.
The haftarah helps us to better interpret the main subject of the Torah portion. Tzara’at need not be read as a treatise on skin afflictions; rather, it is about social and spiritual maladies that threaten the wholeness and integrity of the community. As in the haftarah, selfishness leads to isolation, while acts of sharing and generosity cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion.

The Reconstructionist Network