Friday, April 12, 2013

Tazria-Metzora - The Message of Tzaraas

The main subject in the parshios of Tazria-Metzora is tzaraas, in its various forms. (Tzaraas is often mistranslated as leprosy, however, in reality, it bears no resemblance to any known skin disease, and was a purely supernatural affliction.) The Sages (Talmud, Arachin 15b) teach us that the most common reason for tzaraas is the sin of lashon hara - harmful speech. (There are several different prohibitions that fall under the general category of lashon hara.)

The basic message of the affliction of tzaraas is to teach us the severity of the sin of lashon hara, for, as Maimonides writes in his conclusion to the laws of tzaraas (Hil. Tumas Tzaraas 16:10), the sin of lashon hara will eventually lead to mocking the sages, the prophets, the Torah, and ultimately even to denying the existence of God. God therefore provided us with this unique physical manifestation of punishment for this sin to emphasize the great importance of this matter.

The Zohar (Vayikra 46b) tells us that the ultimate cause of tzaraas is that, through sin, man causes himself to be separated from his spiritual Source. In kabbalistic terminology, his neshama - Divine "breath" or "soul" - leaves him. When the Jewish people are on a sufficiently high level (Ramban, Leviticus 13:47), this departure can manifest itself physically in the form of tzaraas. (This may explain why tzaraas manifests as white spots, indicating the departure of the soul, which is symbolically associated with blood (Leviticus 17:11).) This is especially true for sins involving speech, for, as the Zohar and many other sources teach us, the power of speech is deeply connected to the neshama - "soul" - and, thus, all else being equal, sins involving speech are particularly harmful.

The Chofetz Chaim
Based on this, tzaraas is an indication that one has lost his connection with God, that his sin has caused him to lose a basic aspect of his status as a human being. The Talmud (Pesachim 118) states that anyone who speaks lashon hara "it is fitting to cast him to the dogs." The Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d.1933) explains ('ספר שמירת הלשון, שער הזכירה, פרק ח) that this teaches us that the sin of lashon hara causes a person to lose his status as a proper human being, making him even lower than a dog. For, as the Maharal explains, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the dogs held their tongues from barking at the Jewish people (Exodus 11:7), but this person, whom God has graced with intelligence and understanding, cannot control his tongue.

In his discussion of tzaraas (Mitzva 169), the Sefer HaChinuch (14th century) writes that the basic message of tzaraas was to convey the message that God watches over all of man's deeds and that nothing happens without His will. Thus, even though tzaraas appeared to be a physical ailment, the afflicted person was to recognize that it was not a natural occurrence, but a punishment for his sins. Tzaraas was therefore to be "treated" exclusively by the kohanim; the same priests who are responsible for bringing atonement to the Jewish people through their performance of the Temple service. This was to reinforce in the sinner's mind the reality that God is fully aware of our actions and that nothing happens without His will.

While this is certainly an important lesson for us to learn, one might ask why this lesson would be of particular significance with regard to the sin of lashon hara, which, as we said earlier, is the most common reason why a person was afflicted with tzaraas. Perhaps the answer is that, like many sins between man and his fellow, the sin of lashon hara is actually rooted in a dysfunctional relationship with God. As the Chofetz Chaim writes ('ספר שמירת הלשון, שער התבונה, פרק ט), one of the main reasons we are tempted to speak lashon hara is because we feel that someone has harmed us, and we are tempted to strike back at him through lashon hara. However, the Chofetz Chaim continues, when we have proper bitachon (trust in God) we recognize that no other person can truly harm us. (This is also the explanation provided by the Sefer HaChinuch for the prohibition against revenge (Mitzva 241).)

In addition, it is common for baalei lashon hara (those who regularly engage in speaking lashon hara) to imagine that they are actually serving an important social function, for, by publicizing the misdeeds of others, they believe they are actually helping the community and fighting evil and injustice. In fact, within limitations, this argument is correct! The laws of lashon hara do provide for a number of exceptions when there is a beneficial purpose in conveying the information. However, while such exceptions certainly exist (and they should certainly be utilized when appropriate), they do not provide a blanket heter (dispensation) to publicize every misdeed, and certainly not every accusation or rumor of a misdeed, just so that people should be aware of the "issue" or "problem". The Chofetz Chaim (םפר חפץ חיים, הל' לשון הרע, י:יד) very emphatically stresses that it is all too easy to fall into the sin of lashon hara if one relies on these exceptions without careful attention to all the rules that apply. (This topic is briefly summarized here.)

It is certainly possible that diligent attention to the laws of lashon hara may occasionally result in someone "getting away" with doing bad things, and even harming others. The same could be said of many legal principles, such as evidentiary requirements, or concepts such as the obligation to judge others favorably. Every ethical or legal system has to find a balance between respecting the rights and dignity of those who are accused of misdeeds, and the rights and dignity of possible victims or of the community as a whole. The Torah provides us with such a balance, given to us by God, and we are obligated to respect those boundaries even when we imagine that it would be better, in a given case, to go beyond them.

It is here that bitachon plays a role. If we believe that, ultimately, God runs the world, then we recognize that, in the final analysis, it is God who punishes the wicked, and protects the innocent. While we certainly have an obligation to do whatever we can to fight against evil and injustice, our ability to do so is restricted by the ethical principles taught in the Torah. To go beyond those ethical principles is a basic violation of the principle of bitachon.

Thus, we can see how the lesson of bitachon - trust in God - which is rooted in our recognition that God runs the world and is aware of everything that takes place in the world - is particularly important for one who speaks lashon hara. Indeed, this brings us back to our earlier point, that the sin of lashon hara causes a separation between the sinner and God. As we have discussed previously, an important concept in Jewish  thought is that our thoughts create our spiritual reality. Thus, the sinner's failure to recognize God's presence in this world and His involvement in our lives, which lead him to the sin of lashon hara, is itself the root cause of his separation from God.


Anonymous said...

Again, thank you for illuminating dibrei Torah. This fueled wonderful discussion at our shabbat table. Can you recommend additional sources regarding creation of our spiritual reality? Perhaps among the Rishonim?

Shalom rav,

LazerA said...

Akiba, thank you for your comment.

At some point I would like to work on a post that goes into this concept in greater depth and fleshes out the relevant sources. Unfortunately, this would be a larger scale project than I am currently able to do.

One of the difficulties involved is that virtually all the sources that discuss this idea, do so in very veiled terms. (Offhand, the most explicit such discussions are to be found in various chassidic sources.) Nevertheless, in my opinion, this idea is the underlying premise of innumerable sources, including the rishonim. Moreover, in my opinion, once one fully grasps the nature of this idea, it becomes almost self-evident.

I suspect that one of the main reasons why this concept is not discussed explicitly is that it can easily be misunderstood to mean that spiritual reality is purely subjective. Similarly, it could also be misunderstood to mean that any subjective "spiritual" feeling is valid, and that that our spiritual goal should be to attain such a subjective sense of "spiritual connection".

These ideas are not only false but dangerous, as they can (and often do) lead to heretical beliefs.

As should be self-evident, God and His Torah exist entirely independently of our thoughts, and our thoughts have no effect on Him whatsoever. Thus, when we speak of our thoughts creating our spiritual reality, we are not saying that our thoughts change any aspect of the objective spiritual universe, but only that our thoughts have a profound impact on our own status within that universe.

Thus, for example, any basic error in our understanding of the nature of God - such as expressed in idolatry or heresy - results in a profoundly negative impact on our status in the spiritual realms. This is true regardless of the subjective feelings of "spirituality" that the idolater or heretic may be experiencing. To imagine that is drawing close to God while denying basic principles of the Torah is actually to separate oneself from God.

Thus, as I have written previously, the most basic reason why the mitzvos bring us closer to God is precisely because they are God's commandments and we do them to fulfill God's will. The power of a mitzva to connect us to God isn't inherent in the act itself, but in the fact that we are expressing not only our acceptance of God's authority but also that He has is aware of and interested in our actions. It is this recognition, which can only be expressed through the actual performance of the mitzvos, that brings us closer to God.

(This doesn't mean that the mitzvos are simply abirtrary actions that God "randomly" chose for this purpose. It means only that the function of the mitzvos to connect us to God is not dependent on the reasons why God chose to command us to do these specific actions. Thus, every mitzva operates on (at least) two levels, the general function of all mitzvos as described above, and the specific function of each particular mitzvoh (which varies from mitzva to mitzva).)

Thus, while physically fulfilling the mitzvos in the correct manner (including proper attention to every apparently "minor" detail) is absolutely necessary to connect to God, the ultimate cause of this connection is not the physical action in of itself, but the expression of submission to God's will implicit in that performance and the effect that the performance has on our perception of God and His relationship with ourselves and the world.

This is why, without at least some basic belief in God and the Torah, the performance of a mitzva can have little, if any, spiritual meaning, for in such a circumstance the action is not actually being performed as a mitzva (i.e. commandment) at all.