Of course, there is a very real disease called leprosy, but clearly that which is described in the Torah is not the same thing, as the signs and symptoms are completely different. Even more striking, a person who is entirely covered with this affliction is considered pure! Certainly, the malady mentioned in the Torah cannot be leprosy or else this person would be terribly contagious! (See below for an explanation why this person would indeed be pure.)
Herein lies the danger when the Torah is not understood (or even translated) through the prism of our Oral Tradition. This condition is more properly known by its untranslatable term, Tzaras. As the Talmud and virtually all of our commentaries explain, Tzaras is a purely spiritual disease, which occurs as a consequence of speaking negatively about others. As part of the process after a person has been “diagnosed” with Tzaras, he or she must live alone for a certain amount of time. Rashi comments on this by quoting from the Talmud (Arachin16b), “Because he, by his slanderous comments, separated a man from his wife and a man from his friend, so too must he be separated (from others).” This person, after being stigmatized, would be healed and purified from his condition, and would reintegrate himself with the Jewish people, with a more profound understanding of the dangers of slanderous and evil speech.
This illustrates a very powerful concept in Judaism. Spiritual shortcomings do not remain abstract. What we do (or do not do) in our spiritual life, whether in our relationship with G-d or with others, has a real, direct influence on us. Although Tzaras does not manifest itself in our time, we see that Judaism does not differentiate between “religious life” and “secular life”. Judaism, our relationship with G-d and with Torah, are not hobbies, or extracurricular activities that we engage in after work, or a couple times a year. Rather, we must integrate “G-d conscious behavior” into our daily life. When we strive to make ourselves more G-dly, G-d reciprocates by granting us a life of meaning.
(As for why a person completely covered with Tzaras is considered pure, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a beautiful explanation. Tzaras is a consequence for evil speech about others, and the separation the afflicted person must go through is a way to make him recognize and regret his negative behavior. But a person who’s entire body is covered with the disease is so morally corrupt, that he is too self-absorbed to consider changing his ways. There is no point in isolating him and we declare him pure. But by telling him that he is “beyond help”, the Torah is dramatically showing him to what depths he has sunk, and hopefully this will inspire him to better his ways.)
Although we are still a little over a month away, the major holiday of Shavuot is just around the corner, on May 24 and 25. We will be offering some wonderful events for our community, so please mark your calendars now.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Akiva Hall