Illness, bad behavior often offer warning signs but will we see them


Leviticus 14:1—15:33

Kings II 7:3-20

Growing up on the East Coast in the 1980s, popular culture indicated that all Californians were blond, surfed and spoke the language of “Valley Girls.” The Wiki-pedia entry on what is known as “Valspeak” states that “qualifiers such as ‘like,’ ‘whatever,’ ‘way,’ ‘as if!,’ ‘totally’ and ‘duh’ were interjected in the middle of phrases and sentences as emphasizers. Narrative sentences were often spoken as though they were questions using a high rising terminal.”

I was very glad to find that this was far from the case. But imagine my shock to discover this sort of expression in this week’s Torah portion.

The bulk of this parshah deals with tzara’at, a skin affliction commonly translated as “leprosy” but quite distinct from the bacterial ailment that is also known as Hansen’s disease. Tzara’at is depicted as a physical manifestation of spiritual illness, white blotches that strike people to indicate and alert them to ethical and religious corrosion.

This sign is not even limited to people, showing up on clothing and at times on the walls of houses. How bizarre. What purpose is served by display of disease on inanimate objects?

That brings me then to the choice of language from the San Fernando Valley. As part of this ritual process, a kohen (priest) is called in and the Torah dictates that the homeowner is to declare that (Lev. 14:35) “I saw like a tzara’at spot on my house.”

I wonder aloud: like, or the real thing? Did the excited priest declare that this was “totally awesome!”? If bored of this already, did he hold his fingers up to make the shape of a “W” and offer a big “whatever, dude”? And to make worse all this poor verbal expression, this leper is commanded to go around and “call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” ahead of himself (Lev. 13:45). How embarrassing!

A careful reading of the specific wording throughout the portion reveals that the role of the kohen here is to assess the situation and declare whether the visible spots are in fact tzara’at. That is why the afflicted describe their symptoms with such hedged terminology as “like”; they are avoiding declarations of diagnosis until the priest confirms that this is in fact tzara’at.

Maimonides (Tumat Tzara’at 16:10) offers a chronological insight here, describing the stages as a progressively severe series of warnings. First, tzara’at affects a person’s house. If no heed is paid to that, it then affects a person’s clothes, and finally their body. The Kli Yakar explains these warnings as wakeup calls specific to the areas in which the person has been affected. Blotches on a home mean that a person hasn’t been generous with his possessions, on clothing they indicate an emphasis on externals and a lesion on one’s body is a sign that the previous warnings have not been heeded.

The Torah gives us a program for recognizing the warning signs of a spiritual illness and gives us tools for dealing with it. But in order to overcome tzara’at, the Torah requires us to take steps that are uncomfortable and even embarrassing. The person must be brought to the one that can help provide the cure for his disease. In this case that is the kohen, the professional whose expert and sensitive analysis will illuminate the pathway to healing.

But in order to effect the cure, it is not sufficient to be brought to a kohen; the Torah requires that the problem be acknowledged by the person affected by calling out his own impurity. Only by addressing the problem head on, not by denying it or hiding in shame or behind excuses, will he achieve a cure. 

The lessons of the tzara’at are challenging to grasp in a society that places personal autonomy above all else. The Torah is giving us a different model: that when we see a person engaging in destructive behavior we have a responsibility to take action to prevent it and help people to save themselves.

Mental illness and behaviors that are self destructive often offer warning signs, but so often we shut our eyes and leave them unseen. Not every signal is necessarily a sign of any impending disaster, but tzara’at comes along to remind us that a consultation with a professional can make a world of difference in a human life. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Judah Dardik
is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]