Parashat Tazri‘a-Metzor‘a: The Solitude of the Leper

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April 02 2009

We are all familiar with Genesis 2:18: The L-RD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone….” But we find that the metzor‘a must indeed sit alone outside of the camp (where the rest of the Israelite nation is): Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:46).

As is the case with Parashat Shemini and the nature of the sin of the sons of Aaron, an insight from the mussar literature, in this case from Ha-Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zatzal, which also possesses profound philosophical implications, can help illuminate an aspect of the biblical narrative. Rav Shmuelevitz (Sihot Mussar, 1971-73, 1972, #31) commented upon the Talmudic passage (Nedarim 64b) that goes as follows:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: A man who is childless is accounted as dead, for it is written, Give me children, or else I am dead (Genesis 30:1). And it was taught: Four are accounted as dead, a poor man, a leper, a blind person, and one who is childless. A poor man, as it is written, for all the men are dead [which sought your life] (Exodus 4:19). (According to Hazal, Dathan and Abiram, the perennial adversaries of Moses, [vide Exodus 2:13, Exodus 5:20, Numbers 16:27] are referred to here. But the claim that they are dead could not be taken literally, for they explicitly reappear in the story of Korah [Numbers 16]! Resh Laqish, in the Talmudic passage immediately preceding this one, explains that the Torah means that they had become poor.) A leper, as it is written, [And Aaron looked upon Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses…] let her not be as one dead (Numbers 12:10-12). The blind, as it is written, He has set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old (Lamentations 3:6). (The point is that a person who is put in an utterly dark place is tantamount to one who becomes becoming blind, and blind people are considered dead). And he who is childless, as it is written, Give me children, or else I am dead.

R. Shmuelevitz asked: What is the common denominator that unites these four classes of people? He answered that these four classes of individuals are lacking in their ability to feel for others. And, if one cannot feel for others, if one is missing this basic human empathy, if one is existentially alone, he is lacking a core part of what it means to be alive is missing. Hence, he is considered to be dead.

Following this strand of thought, we can begin to understand why the Torah demands that the metzora should remain temporarily alone. Hazal traditionally equate the disease of tzara‘at with the sin of leshon ha-ra; evil gossip. Leshon Ha-Ra kills. And middah keneged middah, the metzor‘a must spend at least some time away from the companionship of others, in order that he reflect and ponder what happened. When alone, he cannot help others, and he comes to realize that others cannot help him either. The Torah’s hope is that this experience will transform himself from an existentially deficient metzor‘a into a new creature, and that he will subsequently resolve to be a good person.

Leshon Ha-Ra causes tzara‘at, which engenders the punishment of solitude. But, as we began our discussion above, The L-RD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone….” What, then should one talk about? The Rambam, at the end of Hilkhot Tume’at Tzara ‘at, writes as follows:

The conversation of the worthy ones of Israel is none other than words of Torah and wisdom, therefore the Holy One, blessed is He, aids them and bestows wisdom upon them, as it is said, And they that feared the L-RD spoke together every man to his neighbor, and the L-RD hearkened and heard. And a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the L-RD and that thought upon his name (Malachi 3:17).


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