This week’s verses from Leviticus relate to the very mysterious condition known as tzara’at. Most Bibles translate this as leprosy, which is very unfortunate because it is not leprosy. If not leprosy, what is it? How is it diagnosed and treated? What are its consequences? And, mostly, why does it matter?
I know this is already sounding like mumbo jumbo to many of you. But I plead with you to stay with me. At least metaphorically, this is very cool stuff and invaluable in helping us lead a good life.
My first gift is to spare you the analysis I’ve done on these portions. For the curious, here’s a link. http://www.thirdwell.org/Tazria-Metzora-Notes-Lesson-26.html.
For the rest, I will just tell you the main idea. Tzara’at is the manifestation (perhaps experienced more spiritually than bodily) of having acted in wrong and sinful ways. The Bible illustrates it.
Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after she gossips about Moses. King Uzziah is afflicted after usurping the priest’s role in the Temple. Naaman is afflicted for acting arrogantly. And Gehazi is afflicted after wrongly extorting a payment from Naaman after Elisha cured him of tzara’at.
The details about the diagnosis and treatment of this dis-ease are fascinating, but we don’t have time here to explore them fully. I do want, however, to make one point. They encourage us to look within ourselves for those impulses that lead us astray so that we can control them before they erupt into harmful behavior.
What happens if we stray and “tzara’at comes on?” Essentially, first, we must acknowledge it, perhaps while getting appropriate help. And, second, we must be isolated in a way that can lead to a change of heart, a turning back in the right direction, and a readiness to become whole with others and a return to the community.
The companion verses in II Kings tell a compelling story that helps us understand this process beautifully.
On the outskirts of town we find four men stricken with tzara’at. Tradition has it that these are Gehazi and his sons. There was a famine in the land, so they decided to scout the enemy Aramean camp in search of food. When they did, they found no one there. The Arameans, we learn, thought God had sent an army dispatched by Israel, and so they fled.
The four came into the camp, ate, and took some riches, just for themselves. But, upon taking and hiding the booty, one told another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, yet we are keeping quiet. If we wait until daybreak, we will incur guilt. Now, let us…relate this in the king’s palace.”
They rushed home and told the gatekeepers who relayed the news to the king. After deliberations and some scouting, the people of their town came to the camp and benefited richly.
Why is this story so important to us?
Let’s assume the one who spoke in the group was indeed Gehazi. Recall he had earlier experienced the desire of riches inappropriately and just for himself. He gave in to these selfish urges in his larcenous actions with Naaman. Now he confronts the same temptations, but this time he overcomes them. This is “not doing right,” he says. Instead, now, he opens up to, and shares with, others.
Turning away from the sinful inclination to which one had previously succumbed and refusing to commit that self-same sin is the classic turning that the God-Who-Welcomes-Us-Back seeks.
Is Gehazi welcomed back into the community? Has he averted Elisha’s forever curse of tzara’at for himself and his descendants? The answer is unclear in the text. I would make the case for a plot in which his transformation leads to his return. Wouldn’t you?