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Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

Outside Israel fell a week behind because the 8th day of Pesach fell on Shabbas. You’ll catch up with a double parsha next week. For the dvar on Shemini, please visit TalkTorah for the connection between snakes, kashrus, the yetzer hara and Egypt.

I’m surrounded by brilliant doctors who grew a bit alarmed when I mentioned that the holiest of people don’t require medical care. Tazria, which focuses on the disease of Tzaras, is the perfect parsha to explore this issue further.

Summary: Tzaras is not leprosy, nor a known illness. It is a spiritual illness solved only by spiritual rectification. Back when we were extremely sensitive to our connection to Hashem, it afflicted us when we slightly deviated, as a sign to encourage us to return. Strangely enough, we should be so sensitive to the importance of our close relationship that we desire Tzaras to return.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

I hope your Omer continues to be an inspiring adventure of growth.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

First things first: Tzaras is not leprosy (Sforno, introduction of Tazria). It is not a known disease. And at least since the destruction of the second temple, it no longer exists.

What’s the proof Tzaras is a spiritual disease, not a known physical one?

1. If some contagious affliction were involved, such that the afflicted is required to be separated from others, “how could one explain that when the affliction strikes a house, it must be emptied of its contents before the Kohen examines it so as to avoid having to declare its contents contaminated? Would not the objects in the house have also been contaminated by the agents of infection?” (Munk, Vayikra 13:12, 14:36).

2. Why would the Torah dedicate an entire chapter to Tzaras if it was only a health concern, and completely ignore the far more common natural dangers of poisonous plants, wild animals and epidemics?   

3. The mere existence of the warnings as theoretical possibilities serves the purpose for which they were intended. In fact, the Talmud confirms tzaras on clothing and houses never occurred (Sanhedrin 71A). Clearly, if the disease mentioned in such detail never occurred, we cannot be simply speaking of a natural disease.

4. There is neither impurity of afflictions of Tzaras nor their purification except by the word of a Kohen, a spiritual leader. The Israelites had medics in their camp but they didn’t treat Tzaras (Rashi, Vay. 13:2). Furthermore, in the words themselves, the afflicted shall be brought to Aaron, the Cohen — the gematria (numerical value) of אל אהרן = 287 =  (doctor)רופא

The Spiritual leader in this case is the only one capable of doing the healing. It’s up to the teacher of the people to reveal the moral cause of their affliction and guide the guilty person back to the right path (Toras Kohanim, 14:35). That’s also why he checks in weekly; in order to give the person time to make a true accounting of his deeds and repent for them.

The Torah points to Tzaras afflictions as a classic example of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses. Even Rambam, the Physician of the royal court of Egypt, emphasizes that the best medication is based on ethical values, for it then tends to re-establish the union between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:27).

The language reveals the essence of the disease and its cure

The language of נגע צרעת , Tzaras affliction/disease can be rearranged word by word into ענג + עצרת, Shabbas and Festivals. The language of Oneg/ענג is of celebration. Let’s break these letters down to reveal their depth.

The letter ע/ Ayin, means eye, or to examine deeply and think about something.

The letter נ / Nun, refers to free will, as a final nun is a long line, stretching from the middle ground to the lowest ground. You can choose to connect to the line or ignore it.

The letter ג/ Gimmel, refers to giving, as in Gimilut Chasidim, doing good deeds, giving to others.

An ענג is when you think deeply about your actions, then you connect them to your free will, and the result is an act of giving. This is worthy of celebration.

A נגע is when you disconnect your free will from careful thinking, apply it in the world and affect others with it, and only afterward use your intellect to rationalize your actions. This is an affliction, which hurts you and the world.

There are two roads open to us, that of tying our thoughts and actions to proper moral behavior and those of rationalizing our inappropriate actions. Correct actions are celebrated, improper ones must be corrected by humbling oneself to a Cohen, a spiritual leader.

So why doesn’t Tzaras still exist?

It was a spiritual affliction only for Jews already at extremely high spiritual levels, for those extremely sensitive to errors and distances in their relationship with Hashem and the Mitzvot. Just as an expert will notice slight deviations in their field that a lay-person wouldn’t, so too a sensitive Jew would notice his slight disconnect and correct it. We know that a rocket into space, if launched a fraction of a degree off or a few seconds behind schedule, will not reach its destination, even though the casual observer noticed no difference. When we reached a state where our disconnects were so great that we would no longer be able to pinpoint which area of defection the Tzaras emerged to correct, the Tzaras no longer served its purpose and went away.     

As strange as it sounds, we should desire Tzaras. The Zohar refers to it as יסורין של אהבה, a chastisement of love. It’s a sign of how much G-d desires to be close to us, that even the bad that happens is meant to return us to the greatest good.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

Why we need doctors

In our world today, we need doctors and although we pray and believe that the power of recovery ultimately lies in G-d’s hands, we recognize the great distance between where we are and where we’d like to be. Almost nobody is at the level where their bitachon in Hashem can justify not seeing doctors.

Rambam understood that although the ideal state is to be so connected that the Kohanim provide the cure, not the doctors, in our times, and for thousands of years, the doctors are vital for our survival and among the most important professions. Love your doctors, for they give us the strength to live healthy lives.

But one day, may we hope to once again reach this even higher level, when we feel so closely connected to Hashem that we can attribute every deviation in our lives to a specific disconnect, and in correcting our moral stumbles, reach a level of love and joy unprecedented in our days.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

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