Leprosy and Other Plagues

We can sanctify our houses, clothes, and bodies by creating a more just society.

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

In this week’s parashah, Tazria, we read about the disease tzaraat, commonly translated as leprosy. What is peculiar about this skin disease is that it not only afflicts humans but also clothing (Leviticus 13:47) and houses (Leviticus 14:33-57). It is not only people’s bodies that are struck with tzaraat, but also their possessions. What is the significance of this peculiar feature of tzaraat and what does it tell us about our society?

The rabbis understood tzaraat to be a punishment from God for various transgressions, including, most famously, wicked speech (lashon ha-ra), but also pride, deceit, false witness, bloodshed, wicked thoughts, pretending to have knowledge of Torah, causing discord, miserliness, announcing but not giving charitable donations, defamation of character, idol worship, blasphemy, and robbing the public (Leviticus Rabbah 16:1,5; 17:2,3).

Corrupt Societies

Together these many sins point to a society that is falling apart: one filled with selfishness, deceit, disharmony, and violence. Indeed, the theme of deceit, predominant in the above list of evils, strikes at the very core of what is essential for a society to function–namely our trust in our fellow citizens, leaders, and social institutions.

The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hassidic Rebbe, takes the theme of wicked speech even further, indicating that the plague of tza’ra’at results not only from evil things one has said, but also from things one should have said but didn’t. That is, it is not only that acts of evil are being committed, but as importantly, acts of good are being omitted. In particular, it is the failure to protest and oppose evil rampant in society that leads to the plague.

Tza’ra’at strikes beyond the body, then, because its causes and their effects are more than personal. Rather, these sins and crimes are profoundly destructive for the entire society in which they take place.

Societies filled with deceit, discord, and violence end up suffering from “plagues” that strike houses, clothes, and bodies–symbolic representations of shelter, sustenance, and healthcare. An effective and moral society, one that speaks out against injustice, will be a society in which each of these necessities is attainable by all people.

Indeed, the midrash makes clear the consequences of social and national destruction in its reading of this parashah, where it interprets the story of a house plagued with tza’ra’at as referring to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people (Leviticus Rabbah 17:7). The sins of tza’ra’at, then, lead not only to personal and societal suffering, but also to national calamity.

Salvation is Possible

Tza’ra’at, or forms of this “plague,” exist today. In both the developing world and our own communities, people lack the most basic necessities, not as a result of natural forces but as a result of our failure as local and global citizens to create the social conditions necessary for providing these resources.

In our own society, a society of great wealth and abundance, we fail to provide adequate housing and clothing to all, though the resources to do so are plentiful. More strikingly, of course, is that many Americans lack access to adequate healthcare.

In the developing world, the provision of these resources is even more difficult. Yet on a global level, with our help, providing these basic elements of life is not impossible.

Despite the destruction we see in the world, salvation is possible. The midrash cited above does not end with exile and destruction. Rather, it concludes by interpreting the explanation of the rebuilding of the infected house (“and they shall take other stones, and put them in the place of those stones” in Leviticus 14:42) as referring to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the return of the exiles.

So too, the Sefat Emet tells us that the reason tza’ra’at spreads to our houses and clothes is to indicate to us that not only can they be afflicted, but they can also be sanctified.

We can sanctify our houses, clothes, and bodies by making sure that shelter, clothing, and healthcare are available to all. We can help create societies that not only lack the destructive values of selfishness, deceit, discord, and violence, but that also know when and how to speak the words that need to be spoken, to stand up and take action. Together, then, we can help create a global society of compassion, harmony, and truth.

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