The Torah portion you are referrring to describes in great detail the intricacies of the laws of this “Tzaraas.”
It is not referring to the infliction of the skin affliction we today call leprosy. We only call it that as a borrowed term. Tzaraas is a spiritual affliction, not a physical one, although it has a physical manifestation.
This is clear from the fact this affliction affects the hair and even spreads to clothing, as the Torah spells out in that chapter. Furthermore, we learn that this sickness may affect one’s home as well. No disease we know today would equally affect the skin, one’s clothing, and the walls of the house.
It results from the misdeed of “Lashon Hara,” or negative gossip about a fellow Jew. That is why the atonement therein is by bringing bird offerings, birds that chirp like the one who “chirped” with idle gossip.
Maimonides points out that the order that this affliction takes place is the opposite of the way it is described in the Torah.
He explains the order of the spread of the affliction the following way:
- If one begins gossiping against a fellow Jew, first a sign appears, as a type of “sickness” on the walls of the home. This indicates, in a miraculous way, that the home has been defiled by this type of speech.
- If the gossiper doesn’t repent and change his ways, the affliction moves closer to him – by affecting the “shirt on his back”, appearing on an article of clothing.
- If the person still doesn’t take heed and learn his lesson, then it goes to the skin of his body.
- If the Kohen pronounces his affliction to be “Tzaraas,” it results from the misdeed of “Lashon Hara,” or negative gossip about a fellow Jew. That is why the atonement therein is by bringing bird offerings, birds that chirp like the one who “chirped” with idle gossip is deemed to be a “metzora,” and is sent outside the camp, to be distant from all other Jews to have time for introspection and teshuva, repentance, until he changes his ways.
- The sign of full repentance is the miraculous disappearance of the affliction, to be pronounced by a Kohen, who has the power to grant the license to return to the camp and back home.
The Torah says these laws apply only in Israel. The classical commentary, Nachmonides, explains that only when the Jews were in Israel at their highest level, with the Temple intact and the Divine Presence, the Shechina, dwelling within them do these laws take effect.
The Jews had a profound connection to the Shechina. Having G-d’s presence amongst them to such a degree caused them to be in the best of health, their homes unusually beautiful, their clothing stunning, all glowing with holiness.
During such times it would be very rare for a Jew to succumb to one of the lowest of sins: deriding a fellow Jew. By doing so, he would cause the Divine Presence to vacate from his home, causing a sign of disgust, and a wake-up call to that Jew to repent and reconnect.
If the Jews would descend to lower levels of connection these laws would not take affect. The miraculous nature of this affliction could only actualize when the act of gossip against a fellow Jew would be reflection of a tremendous deviation from the norm – that of the deepest connection. If the Jews would fall prey to widespread gossip the affliction to an individual would not take root.
Unfortunately, we are light years away from that type of level today, as we are distant from Israel in its full glory. This, sadly, renders these laws temporarily non-applicable. We still can, however, glean important messages from them to enhance our holiness and to understand the incredible power of speech.
We should learn from this portion and mitzvah to recognize the power of our words and use them for only postive purposes – kind and comforting or strengthening words to another, words of encouragement, words of Torah and of prayer. We refrain from words of negativity, criticism and gossip.
In this way we can build ourselves and those around us, as our Torah says, “Death and life are within our tongues.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried