The odds are very high that there will not be any sermons delivered in shuls this coming Shabbos. However, if sermons were to be delivered, the odds are even higher that they would center around the quarantine that is imposed on a m’tzora, the central topic of this week’s double sidrah.
Given the unusual immediacy that this topic has for us, perhaps it would be instructive to think about what they might mean for us in the world of social distancing. I will follow the masterful treatment of Rav Samson R. Hirsch, who provides a compelling discussion of Tzaraas and all forms of Tum’ah (spiritual defilement).
As you may have noticed, I did not translate Tzaraas as “Leprosy” because, as Rav Hirsch conclusively proves from the details of the halachos, it has nothing to do with that awful contagious disease. To cite one example, a person who is a m’tzora on his entire body from head to toe is tahor and is not subject to quarantine. (See his commentary for several other proofs.)
If it is not leprosy, then what is it? And why does the Torah refer to it as a nega, and the tractate of the Mishnah dealing with it calls the topic N’ga’im?
It is well known, particularly from the story of Miriam, who became a m’tzoraas after gossiping about Moshe Rabbeinu (D’varim 12), that a prime cause of tzaraas is speaking lashon ha’ra, or gossiping. However, the Gemara in Arachin (16a) notes no less than seven sins that result in the punishment of tzaraas, including not only lashon ha’ra but arrogance, miserliness, promiscuity, swearing falsely, thievery, and murder. If one seeks a commonality among these, they are all gross deficiencies in how one treats other people. (One assumes that a false oath would be to defraud another person, as well).
Rav Hirsch notes that the word nega comes from the root meaning “touch.” A person who has a nega has been “touched” by G-d. Hashem wants to wake him up, and to take note of something – something relevant to his/her skin (or hair). Our skin is the interface between ourselves and the rest of the world. Everything inside my skin is me; everything outside my skin is not me.
By touching my skin and showing that it is diseased, G-d is telling the person that his/her interface with the world is unhealthy and contaminated. The person is not a mentch. The way that he interacts with others is seriously deficient, and he must go into quarantine and stay by himself until such time as he has introspected and become healthier in his attitude; and only then will he be welcome again in society. See Rav Hirsch’s commentary for further elaboration; it is a must-read.
When thinking about this in our context, we all are speculating why Hashem wants us to all be in quarantine. Why does He want our shuls and yeshivos and batei midrash closed? Why can we only celebrate s’machos with a below-bare-minimum of guests? Why were we deprived of having a Seder with our children and parents? I do not pretend to have the answers; it would be presumptuous of anyone to claim to understand why. But yet, given relevance that this sidrah has to being in quarantine, it might afford an opportunity to think a bit more about how we interact with each other, now that we are being kept apart.
I honestly do not think that the sin of Lashon HaRa ought to be the focus. While, of course, much remains to be improved in this area, I think that the awareness of this issue, and efforts to face the problem, have been very significant in the last few decades. Myriads of people have been influenced by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, and there have been other major efforts that have had significant results. But if we think of the list cited above from Arachin 16a, the underlying ethic seems to be that tzaraas came when people were being too full of themselves and dismissive of others, in various forms.
Given that theory, here are some questions that might be appropriate for contemplating in quarantine. It is a very incomplete list; feel free to add. My purpose is only to provide some food for thought.
No one needs to tell us how divisive the social and political climate has become. Have we allowed our disagreement with other people’s views to color our value of them as individuals? Can we still separate our disagreements with others from the love we ought to have for them?
Many have commented on the way that the coronavirus has particularly affected the extravagant Pesach programs, the overblown weddings and other affairs, and the elaborate travel and vacations that have become commonplace. The problem is particularly when those have a component of ego, showing off, and superiority, without sufficient consideration of how harshly this has affected others who felt compelled to “keep up” and provide for their families what they could not afford. How should we behave in the future?
Have we been sensitive enough to those in our society who are always alone? Do we care enough for the elderly, the shut-ins, the singles, and those for whom being socially distanced is their normal? Now that we know what it feels like, are we prepared to do something about it?
Husbands who have been at home for an extended period: Have you begun to appreciate a bit more what your wives have to contend with all the time? Are you doing your fair share of helping with the kids and the housework? When you frequently left home in the evening, either to learn or to work, was there an element of escaping that reality? How will you implement lessons learned going forward?
For far too many in our community, we were arrogantly dismissive of the menacing danger and felt that we knew better than the medical and government authorities, and thus lives were needlessly put in danger. Are we considering our part in the problem honestly? Did we care enough about endangering others, or only about doing what we felt like?
We see our leadership, both political and spiritual, struggle with finding the correct responses to the unfolding events. I cannot see how one can honestly deny that many mistakes were made, and appropriate responses were slow in coming. While a deep postmortem (too often literally) analysis must be done, what about the rest of us? Are we going just to snipe and be critical, or are we going to be positive and do our part to help bring people together when we can?
There is much more than this list that I came up with off the top of my head. Let us take the opportunity to use Parshas Tazria-M’tzora to think about what we can do to end this state of quarantine and move back to being the Holy Nation that Hashem wants back in His home.
Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, formerly a rav at Young Israel of Forest Hills and in Oregon, now lives in Lavon, Israel, and seeks to promote Jewish unity and mutual appreciation among all sectors of our people. He blogs at www.libibamizrach.blogspot.com.