The parsha of Metzora details laws of impurity, a state that would prevent a person from entering the Temple and, in some cases, from entering the Israelite camp. Tzara’at, often mistranslated as “leprosy,” was a supernatural spotting that could appear on a person’s house, clothes, or body. If the person’s body had such a spot, he would bring himself to a Kohen who would inspect it. If the Kohen determined that the spot was indeed tzara’at he would declare the person impure. The person would have to leave the Israelite camp, dwell in solitude, and would be shunned by everyone. In short, he would be treated like a leper (perhaps this treatment is the source of the misidentification of tzara’at with the medical disease of leprosy). Our parsha deals with this person’s re-entrance into the camp. When it appeared that the spot had gone away, the Kohen would examine the person, and if the spot had indeed disappeared, the Kohen would supervise a purification process for this person of ritual immersion, shaving of the entire body, and sacrifices. Finally, after a week of this process, the person would be rendered pure and re-admitted into the camp.
The impurity of tzara’at is starkly contrasted with other impurities detailed at the end of the parsha. Other impurities prevent a person from entering the Temple or eating sacrifices, but do not entail such harsh, shunning treatment. Moreover, other impurities result from natural causes – contact with the dead, or emissions of certain bodily fluids, while tzara’at is the only impurity that occurs supernaturally. It seems clear that Tzara’at is not only an impurity, but a divine punishment as well. What is the meaning of this punishment?
The Talmud looks at the cases in the Torah where people were afflicted with tzara’at, and concludes that tzara’at is a punishment for slander. This, I believe, is the key to understanding this phenomenon. Slander is a social sin. It is a sin that we indulge in to enhance our position within society or because of an inflated sense of that position. When people run to hear the latest gossip or to read about the latest scandal, society becomes the silent partner in this sin. The punishment/impurity of tzara’at is corrective both for society and for the sinner. Tzara’at is a spot. Another word for spot is stigma. The Torah is telling us that society must stigmatize this person, must see his behavior as reprehensible, not as desirable. This is why, unlike all other impurities, tzara’at only renders the person impure when a Kohen declares it impure. Society must judge this person, must declare him undesirable. This is the first step in their mutual rehabilitation.
This person is next sent out of the camp and shunned by all. The message could not be clearer. He is unwanted by society, despised, an outsider. His actions corrupt his society, and he has lost rights to participate in that society. The person, left alone and isolated, considers his actions and their results. Far from prestige, he has earned himself derision. Hopefully, he comes to grips with his sins, and repents. If he does so, the spot disappears as miraculously as it first appeared. But this forgiveness from God is not enough, he must now seek forgiveness and acceptance from his society. The Kohen goes out to him, and judges him again. If the spot has indeed disappeared, he must now begin a process of readmission into the camp. Change cannot happen overnight. It requires many stages. He shaves himself and goes to mikvah, indicating that he has cleansed himself and is a new person. He does this at the beginning of the process, and again at the end, until he is finally ready to live within society in a constructive manner.
When we indulge in slander, we hurt not just ourselves but society as well. And when society encourages our behavior, it is partner in our sins. A vicious cycle emerges; the more society is dragged down, the deeper it wants to be dragged. We must break this cycle and learn to criticize and castigate this behavior. Only then we will be a healthy society.