Parshas Tazria: Tzara'as As An Opportunity for Greatness
A major theme of this week’s Torah portion is the detailed discussion of the laws of tzara’as. In introducing this section the Torah states, “Adam ki yihiyeh be’or besaro,” if a man will have on the skin of his flesh, “se’eis oh sapachas oh baheres,” any of the various forms of tzara’as which becomes an affliction, “ve’huva el Aharon ha-kohen oh el achad mi’banav ha-kohanim,” and he will be brought to Ahron the kohen, or any of Ahron’s sons who are kohanim (Va’yikra 13:2).
A number of commentators are struck by the choice of the word “adam” used to describe a person with tzara’as. After all, there are a number of Hebrew words which essentially mean the same thing – ish, gever, and enosh – and the Zohar (see Ha’amek Davar) maintains that, of all of them, adam refers to mankind on its highest level. It seems peculiar, therefore, to use this word to describe person who, according to the Talmud (Erchin 15), committed the sin of lashon hara and is being punished with tzara’as. In short, why use a term of distinction to refer to someone being punished for a serious indiscretion?
Some have suggested that this was done with deliberate irony to highlight the gravity – even more than other sins – of inappropriate speech. When Adam Ha-Rishon was created from the dust of the earth God blew the “soul of life” into him (Bereihis 2:7) and Onkelos famously interprets this as “ruach me’malela,” the “spirit of speech.” In other words, human beings are defined by, of all characteristics, their ability to speak. A person who speaks lashon hara, therefore, is squandering – in fact, abusing – the gift that most defines humanity. By referring to a person suffering from tzara’as as “adam” the Torah is, in essence, accenting the tragedy of this person’s behavior; the very facility that has the potential to elevate a human being to his or her highest level – adam – was used in a way that not only hurt another person but also caused the perpetrator to suffer the embarrassing effects of tzara’as.
This understanding serves as an important reminder about the power of and potential of speech. The way we speak – for better or for worse, to hurt or to heal – to a large extent defines who we are.
A second and very different explanation is suggested by Rav Moshe Alshich. Writing in the 16th century, he wonders why tzara’as only existed in earlier generations but was no longer present in his time. In the course of resolving this question he asserts – surprisingly – that tzara’as was only manifest in people who were generally of high stature and spiritual standing. The Alshich explains that this is because the physical symptoms of tzara’as were the result of a contrast between the inner deficiency that led to the sin and the person’s generally “healthy” spiritual state; like a black dot on white canvass, the deficiency is noticeable because of the difference. When someone of a lower spiritual state speaks lashon hara, however, the sin is no less but the symptoms of tzara’as would not become visible because this particular sin merely blends in with the person’s many other deficiencies. The Alshich explains that this is why tzara’as was only present in earlier generations – when people were on a higher spiritual level – and this is also why the Torah uses the distinguished term “adam” to introduce these laws, because only someone of stature, an adam, will ever display the symptoms of tzara’as.
A third approach is offered by Rav Nissan Alpert (Limudei Nissan). As opposed to the Alshich who views the presence of tzara’as per se as indicative of the afflicted person’s general stature, R. Alpert suggests that the prominence implied by the term “adam” is actually conditional and depends on what the person does after displaying the symptoms of tzara’as. This is because even more significant than whether a person spoke lashon hara or not is if a person who has tzara’as endeavors to fix the problem and better him or herself. R. Alpert maintains that this is indicated by the end of the verse which describes the afflicted person presenting the symptoms to Ahron or one of the other kohanim. He explains that aside from determining whether the presented symptoms are in fact tzara’as, the kohen had an additional – and more important – role as religious counselor who advised the person on how to uproot this spiritual malady. R. Alpert notes that it is not an easy thing to admit private failings to an authority figure – hence the word “ve’huva” implying that the person was almost dragged to the kohen against his or her will – but therein lies the greatness. The willingness to do whatever is necessary, even if it is embarrassing, to grow and be better in the future is a genuine hallmark of greatness and worthy of the appellation “adam.”
R. Alpert’s insight is certainly worthy of further contemplation as its implications go far beyond the specific sin of lashon hara or affliction of lashon hara. We all make mistakes but what distinguishes us is how we react to those shortfalls. Many people would like to be better but are simply unwilling to do what is necessary to improve. The road to redemption can be long and achieving repentance can be difficult; it truly requires an “adam” to be committed to doing whatever it takes to become a better person.