This double portion–long the bane of b’nai mitzvah students–presents unique challenges. From the prohibitions associated with childbirth through the laws deaing with the nega-tzara’at (the plague of a scaly eruption) on skin, clohing and even houses; we are challenged to understand what exactly this “plague” may be. Often referred to a leprosy when this occirs on a person, we witness teh diagnoses by the priest and, if the diagnosis is positive, the expulsion from the camp of the impacted person. There are a host of comments about this act, as it is sometimes likened to the expulsion from society of people deemed to be “the other”.Often, in our day, this reflects attitudes of stigma attached to people dealing with mental health issues. However, you can make the case that placing people outside the “camp” who make us feel uncomfortable, has a variety of possible meanings; from the mental health issue, to people who may not look like us, to even elders who are placed in facilities and forgotten.
You can turn this portion on itself and see the symbolism as internal. What is it that may make us ashamed of others? Is it fear? Is it that we project some sense of shame that we feel on others? Yes, there are times wen isolation of an infected person is mandated. Indeed, we are living in some of those times with Covid. But, again, let the text “speak” to us and allow ourselves to free associate with the expansion of meaning of why and when we seek to exclude people. Is there a tzara’at of the soul? Do we know or see people whose souls seem to have infected with a type of moral plague? Some commentators reflect that these eruptions on skin or clothes or house are symbolic of the internal disease of the person, or the wearer or the occupant. It is a sign from God of this psycho-spiritual plague.
A classic comment on this passage is that the plague is really symbolic of the “sin” of lashon ha-ra (gossip/evil speech). We see this too much in our society, especially as people use social media to often spread the plague of distorted and evil speech; speech that can often harm, speech that can often result in a person being shamed and feeling cut off from the world. This plague of the soul is something we need to examine, own and confront. In Torah, rituals were devised to bring a person back into the community. Can we devise similar modern rituals that rid a soul of the plague of moral tzara’at?
Those choices remain not for God but within our power. To avoide this reality is to further the decay of our society from within. This portion speaks to that challenge.
Rabbi Richard F Address