You may recall the robust discussion we had about this mysterious affliction known in Hebrew as tzara’at when we studied the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, last year. Now as we focus on the mitzvot that guide us as to the importance of sacred space to fulfilling our covenant mission, we will look at tzara’at from a somewhat different perspective. What is this “impurity?” What causes it? Why is God so concerned about it? How does it threaten our mission for God, especially in our capacity to be in sacred space and indeed be with others in community? And how do we treat this condition in order to permit the afflicted to come back in to the community as well as to come back into sacred space to experience sacred encounter and grow in holiness?
Let’s review the basic understanding we reached when we last visited these matters in our Torah study, look at the guiding mitzvot, and then try to come up with answers to our questions.
Recall our discussion about the misleading translation of this Hebrew word in most Bibles - both Christian and Hebrew. It’s said to be leprosy, but, as we discussed, it clearly is not leprosy, not Hansen’s disease. While tzara’at has features of this disease and others, it’s not any of them, including leprosy. We’ll discuss the significance of this in a moment, but I wanted to make this point to help set the stage.
Whatever it is, it is important! The mitzvot about it cover two full chapters in Leviticus. There are numerous other references to it in the Tanakh. Miriam, for example, was afflicted after she criticized and spoke unjustly about Moses. King Uzziah was punished with it after he arrogantly and inappropriately offered incense on the inner altar. And, after Elisha cured a Syrian general of tzara’at and refused payment for his services, his student Gehazi, surreptitiously took the reward, and, as a result, was afflicted with the condition.
In studying these mitzvot, we will deduce certain elements of the affliction. Tzara’at appears as a skin ailment, though the condition runs deeper than the skin. It appears through unusual changes not only in the skin and scalp of people but also in the fabrics of garments and the walls of houses. It is generally a scaly affection, which also has eruptive or spreading potential. This spreading feature appears to give tzara’at a plague-like or perhaps infectious potential.
Yet, in many physical ways, this condition does not seem infectious in the manner of, say, the bubonic plague. Actually, there are clear indications in the mitzvot that while the affliction is of a smiting and spreading sort, it does not particularly portend a physical health threat to others.
It is the priest, not a doctor or other health-related expert, who ministers in cases of tzara’at, and he does so without medical treatments to diagnose or cure the ailment. Rather the priest identifies the condition and administers the rituals of the mitzvot that, in certain ways, treat it.
The mitzvot steer us away from the view that the Divine concern is fundamentally about the spreading of a physical disease. Yet, with respect to this odd condition, which so resembles a spreading decay, there is obviously an extreme Divine displeasure and insistence that those afflicted by it be deemed tamei. And, important to our current discussion of sacred space, so long as they’re afflicted, they are not permitted in sacred space and indeed, for a while, not even permitted in human society.
Before we explore possible deeper meanings of tzara’at
and its relationship to holiness, let’s look at the mitzvot.
Read Leviticus 13: 1-8
Leviticus 13: 1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 When a person has a swelling, a scab, or a shiny spot on their skin, and it becomes an infection of skin disease on their skin, they will be brought to the priests, either to Aaron or one of his sons. 3 The priest will examine the infection on the skin. If hair in the infected area has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin, then it is an infection of skin disease. Once the priest sees this, he will declare the person unclean. 4 But if the shiny spot on the skin is white and does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair has not turned white, the priest will quarantine the infected person for seven days. 5 On the seventh day the priest will again examine the infection. If he sees that it has remained the same—the infection has not spread on the skin—the priest will quarantine the person for seven more days. 6 On the seventh day the priest will examine it again. If the infection has faded and has not spread over the skin, the priest will declare the person clean; it is just a rash. The person must wash their clothes, then they will be clean again. 7 But if the rash continues to spread over the skin after they appeared before the priest for purification, they must again show themselves to the priest. 8 If the priest sees that the rash has spread over the skin, the priest will declare the person unclean; it is a case of skin disease.
Read Deuteronomy 24:8
Deuteronomy 24: 8 Be on guard against outbreaks of skin disease by being very careful about what you do. You must carefully do everything the levitical priests teach you, just as I have commanded them. 9 Remember, after all, what the Lord your God did to Miriam on your departure from Egypt!
Read Leviticus 14:47-59
Leviticus 14: 47 Anyone who lies down in the house must wash their clothes. Anyone who eats in the house must also wash their clothes. 48 But if the priest arrives and finds that the infection has not spread after the house was replastered, the priest will declare the house clean because the infection has been healed. 49 To cleanse the house, the priest will take two birds, cedarwood, crimson yarn, and hyssop. 50 He will slaughter one bird over fresh water in a pottery jar. 51 He will then take the cedarwood, hyssop, and crimson yarn, along with the wild bird, and will dip all of this into the fresh water and into the blood of the bird that was slaughtered. He will then sprinkle the house seven times. 52 In this way, the priest will cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, the fresh water, the wild bird, the cedarwood, the hyssop, and the crimson yarn. 53 Then he will release the wild bird outside the city into the countryside. In this way, he will make reconciliation for the house, and it will be clean.
Read Leviticus 14: 1-10
Leviticus 14: The Lord said to Moses, 2 This will be the Instruction for anyone with skin disease at the time of purification: When it has been reported to the priest, 3 he will go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the person afflicted with skin disease has been healed of the infection, 4 the priest will order that two birds—wild and clean—and cedarwood, crimson yarn, and hyssop be brought for the person who needs purification. 5 The priest will order that one bird be slaughtered over fresh water in a pottery jar. 6 He will then take the other wild bird, along with the cedarwood, crimson yarn, and hyssop, and will dip all of this into the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 7 He will sprinkle the person who needs purification from skin disease seven times and declare that they are clean. Then the priest will release the wild bird into the countryside. 8 The person who needs purification will then wash their clothes, shave off all of their hair, and bathe in water; at that point, they will be clean. After that, they can return to the camp, but they must live outside their tent for seven days. 9 On the seventh day, the person must shave off all their hair again: head, beard, and eyebrows—everything. They must wash their clothes and bathe in water; then they will be clean again.
10 On the eighth day, that person must take two flawless male sheep, one flawless one-year-old ewe, a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah[c] of choice flour mixed with oil, and one log[d] of oil. 11 The priest performing the purification will place these and the person needing purification before the Lord at the meeting tent’s entrance.
A. Is this a physical disease, or a feared physical disease? Or is it something else? Why are we discussing it in the context of sacred space? What could this discussion mean to us in our own time, given our emerging understanding of sacred space and our mission to be holy and bring holiness into the world? And what could it mean to us in our own time, given our emerging understanding of sacred space?
B. Why must a person diagnosed with this condition be kept away from sacred space and even the community as tamei, at least as long as the condition persists?
C. Who diagnoses and helps treat this condition? What do we learn from this?
D. What’s the process for re-integrating a person who’s been diagnosed back into the community? What do we learn from that?
E. What could it possibly mean that the condition afflicts garments and houses?
F. What does our understanding of tzara’at contribute to our notions of the integrity, purpose, and operation of inner sacred space and how do we protect such space from, say, temptation or succumbing to sinful behavior.
(As to Question A: while the people of the Bible may have been concerned as they approached the Promised Land about the pollution of a real or rumored disease of this type and there are Biblical accounts of its outward manifestation, it is not, at least not principally, about physical disease. As we have discussed, there is no disease in recorded medical history that has the characteristics of this condition.
If it’s not physical, that does not mean it’s not real. The Bible surely would not spend 116 consecutive verses on a matter that has little or no meaning for us. My hypothesis, based on a variety of supports, is that this condition - its features, its dangers, its consequences, and its treatment - is at its deepest levels an expression about sinfulness. Yes, it has the surface reality in the text of being an organic disease with outward manifestations. And we must grapple with that, but I suggest this principally is intended to drive us, literally and figuratively, to deeper levels, especially since there is no actual physical disease that has these characteristics.
a. We have knowledge aplenty about the Bible’s concern about the polluting effect of sinfulness. The mitzvot regarding tzara’at principally appear just verses before the Holiness Code, the glorious set of mitzvot that define the essence of the holy life. Could it then be that the spreading disease about which we are so concerned here is something God wants us to understand in the context of holiness, perhaps as its greatest threat? Indeed, I want to suggest that it is sinfulness that is the preeminent threat to holiness, a threat that we must understand, diagnose, quarantine, and treat in order to protect sacred space, us, and the holiness which we are called upon to come out of sacred space to promote?
b. As we mentioned, the three cases in the Tanakh in which this disease appears all involve a sinful actor: Miriam, in gossiping and hurting Moses; Uzziah, in disrespecting God and his idolatrous abuse of position; and Gehazi, in his dishonesty and theft.
c. In fact, as we studied earlier, one could say we figuratively came upon a condition much like tzara’at in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain offered a gift to God for which the Divine had no regard. Cain became angry. God confronted Cain, questioning his distress. God said, “surely, if you intend right, there is uplift. But if you do not intend right, sin is at the door, a crouching demon, whose urge is towards you. You can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7) Cain, nevertheless, as we know, killed Abel. God then punished Cain. Cain left the presence of God, and, marked by God so that no one would kill him, he was banished forever to live in a different place.
Let me take a break in our answers to ask you another question: what is it in these Biblical stories that make us think tzara’at is about sin? In other words, what is in the essence of our understanding of sin that we see in these characters’ behavior and, at least metaphorically, in the description of tzara’at?
(These stories tell us much about our tradition’s view of sin. The spreading nature of sin is clearly seen in Miriam’s gossip. The bloated self of Uzziah - the expropriation of a role that is not ours - has the feel of a sin in that a border is crossed as to our serving a proper role and our assuming, virtually idolatrously, that we can take on whatever role we choose. The transformation of our wishes into theft, as happened with Gehazi, is characteristic of sin, a transgressing, a spreading from one way of being, so to speak, to dis-ease.)
In God’s confrontation with Cain, we understand that if our intentions are bad, we are susceptible to the sinful condition. Sin is near our door, ready to come in. If we are not committed to the good, sin seeps in, spreads in to afflict us. It does not take us over all at once; indeed God’s message to Cain conveys the idea that, even when inclined to the wrong, we can keep sin away. When, however, we do not, and it creeps under our skin and erupts, the condition takes hold in a fateful and harmful way, perhaps with permanent and devastating consequences. Is this affliction of Cain not perfectly parallel to that of the condition of tzara’at?
Indeed, in a manner of speaking, might it not be said that God, the Priest of all priests, was examining Cain for tzara’at? Cain’s distress and fallen face were, in effect, his discolored skin and white hair. The condition, we later learn, had gotten under his skin and spread; the tzara’at was chronic and mature. Cain refused God’s treatment, which led to even worse sin and permanent exile.)
As to Question B: This really is what is crucial in our study today. Sin absolutely counters holiness. We have an evil inclination. We have a great capacity for depravity. Our heart is weak and constantly subject to every sort of evil imagination. We are the moist garment, susceptible to the mildew, the wet wood, ripe for rot.
If we succumb to sin in a significant way or are in the process of doing so, I think the Bible says we’re in no condition to experience sacred drama, nor are we right for sacred space. The mitzvot seem to drive the idea that we must diagnose and get free of the affliction in order both to re-enter society and experience sacred space. As Chinuch says, the person with tzara’at “should take to heart that as a result of sin, a person is distanced from all goodness - this lesson is impressed upon him so that he will return from his evil path that caused him to be afflicted…”
God tells us we can curb the evil inclination and turn sin away. Before we and others, in our homes and society, become corrupt, we can resist. Yet, since we are not perfect beings and often slip and fall, God wants us to turn back, seeks our return, and gives us paths back. The Bible is full of the ways and means back, and we’ll talk more about them over the next several weeks. But we must be clear here that falling prey to sin is thoroughly inconsistent with our becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and the Bible worries and warns a lot about allowing sin to tarnish the sacred and diminish the holiness that is its principal purpose.
As to Question C: It is the priest who diagnoses and treats and supervises re-entry. Of course, this is right. This is a spiritual/ethical affliction, not a physical/medical one.
Is it possible Jesus treated tzara’at?
As to Question D: The priest helps us understand and treat our condition. We see
where we’ve gone wrong. We understand the consequences of our action.
We repair the injury and make right with those wronged. We begin to “shed
the skin” of acquiescing to the sinful inclination. Others, it is
hoped, will pray for the afflicted. After a time of separation, after
examination and turning within our soul and outward; we heal, prepare to return,
and bring an offering to re-connect with the Divine and others. This process
has the same feel as that of a person afflicted with tzara’at
who seeks healing and return.
For those afflicted, purification takes time and effort and does not always occur speedily. It can take time and be in stages. Before one can fully re-integrate into society and return to sacred space - pure, healed - one must be “cleansed,” undergo rituals of healing and rededication to the Way.
As to Question E: Could the mention of garments and houses simply direct
our souls and minds to the recognition that our environment is also affected by
sin, and that the environment can move us toward sin? The ways of sin rub off
on our culture, our society, and all things that encompass us and touch us,
represented in the text by the idea of garments and houses. If the affliction
reaches our garments and houses, could it be that our waywardness has become
even more severe in that it shows in outward ways all around us?
As to Question F: Discussion