There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.
Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their period of being tamei is over). But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.
And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)
tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.
nega (נֶגַע) = an affliction caused by the touch of God.
tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.
The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.
Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.
Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at. The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.
So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)
Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.
Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.
But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at. Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)
Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.
Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)
Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)
This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.
He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.
Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, like Na-aman.