What’s the Big Deal About “Leprosy” In The Bible?


Let’s dig a little deeper into the mysterious disease of these two portions, tzara’at – what is represents, why it worries God and should worry us, and what we should do if it manifests itself. Here’s a short Q&A study that may help get to understanding.


1.Let’s start with the verse where my Bible translates tzara’at as leprosy. Does yours? My oh my. I have handed out an article on leprosy. For those of you who have read it and all these verses, help us out: is the condition described in the Bible leprosy? Is the condition on the garments leprosy?  If it’s not leprosy, what is it?


(No, it’s not. Scholars have attempted to identify each of these conditions as other diseases, generally with limited success. And to the extent they appear to be close to other maladies, what still do we make of their identification here as leprosy? Is this simply a reaction to fear of a range of possible diseases that have these characteristics? Or do you think there might be something else at work?


Let me help by informing you there are three notable cases of Biblical figures who were afflicted with tzara’at: 1) Miriam, after she spoke ill of Moses, 2) Gahazi, who was duplicitous with Naaman in obtaining a reward that Elisha had already turned down (2 Kings), and King Uzziah, who burned incense on the altar, though that was a role reserved exclusively to the priest.)



2. So, let me ask again: what are your thoughts about this “spreading affection” that concerns God and the community so much that it necessitates an examination by the priest and a separation, if diagnosed, along with some process that we’ll talk about in a moment for reintegration into the community? Don’t be afraid to be metaphorical!


(This is very complex material with a real mystery to it. And it does most likely reflect an anxiety about physical disease – whether real or imagined. But I believe, and as I will point out in a moment, I’m not alone in where I’m headed, I believe this is fundamentally the most metaphorical language we will encounter in Torah.


I see this whole discussion at its deepest level to be about something of the absolute greatest concern, something that really does operate beneath the skin and has very much of a spreading character. I believe this is a very powerful and rich and metaphorical discourse about sin – one that reflects concern, indeed fear, about how it forms, how it spreads, and how it can take over a person and taint, and even damage or destroy a community. And there is a special anxiety about it coming in, in whatever state it has evolved in a person, to the space where we encounter the Divine.

Sages think first of the sin of slander. That’s what was what brought on the malady for Miriam. Indeed it follows nicely the concern from the last portion about what goes into the mouth. Here it is crucially about what goes out of the mouth.)



3. Let me ask this: how does slander itself correspond so well to the metaphor of a spreading affection?


(The idea to slander another generally forms in the mind out of an unhealthy emotion or intention to do harm. Then, after planning, the actor moves into action, likely feeling justified and “honest” to start, with a “justifiable” purpose. Generally, the malice and the hurtful speech pick up steam, and then it’s out and causing harm. Once it’s out, it’s out, and cannot easily be retrieved, and the damage has had its impact and is hard, if impossible, to repair. Now that’s a spreading affection to worry about!)


4.. By reflecting on what I told you about Gehazi and Uzziah, what other sins clearly fall into the set of what concerns God here?


(We see theft in a surreptitious manner, and see a quietly and perhaps hidden expropriation of another’s God-designated role. The sages add haughty eyes, a mind that hatches evil, a vain oath, inciting brothers to quarrel, and miserly behavior, among others.)


5. How would these actions fit into a set of worrisome spreading affections?


(They begin in a quiet place in the heart, and the actor may not fully understand or believe it’s wrong, or at least that he’ll get caught. In fact, it’s hard to detect and hard to punish, yet it can do real damage. Further, once others realize it can happen and the perpetuator can get away with it, the temptation grows, and it becomes likely that others will do it. Finally, they typically involve a small bending of the rules that tends to lead to a larger bending, with the need to excuse expanding with the offense.


6. This idea of searching out the symptoms or pre-conditions of emergent sin is not new to our study of the Bible. Let’s read Genesis 4:6-8. And then I’ll ask why do I mention this passage.


(There are signs in Cain of a spreading affection. We have warning signs!


This is more of a spiritual disease, no? It has to do with emotional imbalance, ethical weakness. Yet, it has outward, even physical manifestations. They show in his face and his anger. God sees it (as the priest does in our portion), and God beseeches Cain to treat it, for, if he does not, sin is crouching at the door, waiting to actualize what is still nascent, yet emerging. And, of course, we see the awful end of this affection, when not controlled and allowed to spread to its full measure. Isn’t this exactly the same phenomenon that we see in our portion?)




We have continued this week our exploration of sacred space and its place and purpose in helping us prepare to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Today we went on a journey – mostly – through, I believe, the remarkable, metaphorical land of tzara’at. This trip is an important one in its teaching us about the nature and treatment of sin. At its core, I find that the wisest sages seem to see through all those clothes and all that body a picture of the evil inclination – its nature, the danger it poses, the ways of detecting how it works, and God’s asking us to overcome it and giving us gifts to us to do so.

There’s an insight in the lovely Artscroll edition of the Midrash Leviticus with which I want to close today:

“It is wrong to think of sin as something external or peripheral, as something that can be cast aside at will. Every sin leaves a mark, and that mark is commensurate with the sin. Some sins are similar to the tzara’at spot that need only be sequestered and then, after the passage of time, can be pronounced pure. Others are like the tzara’at affliction that must be healed, and if not it deepens and spreads.

Rambam writes that the soul is subject to health and sickness just like the body…..

The lesson of the metzora is clear: Sin is reality – a real sickness. But the Healer of all flesh and spirit has provided the antidotes and remedies as well. He has given us the means to return our souls and spirits to vigorous health, for now and for all eternity.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s