Some people are “bad news” in more ways than one.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Tazria” (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and in it we read about a mysterious skin disease known as “tzara’at,” often (and usually incorrectly), translated as “leprosy” or “a leper.”
We are told that tzara’at would befall a person who committed certain sins, primary among them, slander and forbidden speech.
When a person saw that he was developing what appeared to be a tza’arat-like skin condition, he or she was to go immediately to the High Priest. The High Priest was the only one who was authorized to diagnose and treat the tzara’at. This was not a medical condition…it was a spiritual one! Medical illnesses require doctors but spiritual illnesses requires rabbis!
In most cases, the development of an infection-like breakout on the skin was indeed the punishment of tzara’at.
There is, however, one very interesting case. When a person presents himself to the High Priest with a white rash, the priest was often unsure if it was simply a medical condition or whether it is was a spiritual one.
As such, the individual would be placed in quarantine for a week. After the week passed, the priest inspected the skin again. But here’s the oddity…the verse says, “The Priest shall examine the individual…if the affliction has covered his entire flesh, then he shall be declared pure! If it is completely white, it is pure.”
This is somewhat shocking. If the white blemish would have remained as is or perhaps spread a bit, the individual would have been declared impure. But if it spread throughout the entire body…he is pure! He can move around freely. No declaration. Or so it seems. But this doesn’t seem to make sense! What’s going on over here?
When someone takes ill, we are supposed to visit them. Visiting the sick is a one of the greatest interpersonal mitzvot that a person can perform. Visiting the sick is so great that even God Himself visited the sick, for example, when He visited Abraham after he circumcised himself.
In this case, however, visiting the infected individual was actually forbidden. He was put in quarantine and banished from the camp.
Why is this sick person different from all other sick people, (no Passover pun intended!) in that we can’t visit him?
It is because the individual is a negative influence on others. He is probably experiencing this skin condition for having gossiped, slandered, or otherwise used the power of speech in a negative way. When it comes to negative influences and negative people we are to keep away…even at the cost of performing a mitzva.
This brings us back to the question of why a small rash is impure, while a rash covering the entire body is pure.
It is because when there is a small rash, there is uncertainty: Is the individual experiencing a medical condition, and may very well be a good person suffering due to no fault of his own or is the individual experiencing a spiritual condition possibly due to a range of unbecoming behaviors.
When the blemish is in one place, especially in a place on the body that is usually covered with clothes, the individual must be declared impure so that people know that he is “bad news.” But when the blemish is on the entire body, there is no need to continue to quarantine or to even declare the individual impure – it’s obvious to all!
The lesson here for us is that whether it is “small trouble” or “big trouble” we must keep away from people who could affect us negatively. The stricken individual is one who destroys unity among brothers. We must be sure to always create and strengthen unity amongst brothers!
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