This week’s Parashah introduces two topics that seem at first glance to be unconnected. It opens with the birth of a child and the commandment to have a brit for a boy (the covenantal circumcision) and then prescribes the treatment of tzaraat (translated as “leprosy”) and the measures needed to heal from it. We learn that when one notices that the body is infected (or in possession) with leprosy, or the wall of the house is similarly afflicted, the person should seek the help of a priest.
A curious choice for a skin condition or an infliction on the wall of a house. When we think of leprosy today we think of the disease also known as Hansen’s disease, a long-term infection by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. The relationship between the leprosy described in the bible and Hansen’s disease is unclear.
The leprosy described in our parashah (the tzaraat) is a terrible affliction requiring the individual to participate in a spiritual ritual prescribed by the priest: a regimen of isolation, cleansing, and sacrifice. This “treatment” is an indicator of the nature of the problem. In our tradition, the causes for this tzaraat are internal ones, spiritual ones. In the book of Shmot, Miriam, Moses’s sister, is punished with tzaraat when she speaks ill of Moses and his wife. Our sages use her story as a warning against speaking ill of people and the toxic damages it causes. For Miriam, the mortification is the visible punishment for which she repents. Our parashah teaches us what to do when we can see the external symptoms of our spiritual malady. When we cannot repress the shame and guilt that’s been building up because we have gossiped and treated another as if they are lesser than ourselves and have forgotten that we are all made in God’s image, it exhibits on our skin.
The remedy the priests prescribe is threefold. Isolation stands for the time we have to take and examine our actions. It’s a meditation on our behavior and its consequences. We need to sit by ourselves and dive into what our ill is. We have to understand that what we do affects others around us. The harsh sting of isolation reminds us that if we continue with our negative behavior we will, in fact, end up alone and suffering. Next, the cleansing: both physically and spiritually. It is required to make us pure again. It is then that we can do t’shuvah and learn from our mistakes. When we truly live by our t’shuvah we recognize both what we have done wrong and what we need to do to be better. We have to take the right measures to be pure again and commit to repairing what we have broken. Lastly, sacrifice exacts a price for our actions, a consequence for our behavior and a way to always remind ourselves that we need to do better.
In modern days we have enhanced or replaced sacrifice with prayer. We sacrifice time and energy to keep living our t’shuvah.
To come back to our original question, what’s the connection to giving birth? The parashah’s name Tazria translates to “you will seed.” In the Mishnah we learn: “Who is wise? One who foresees the consequences of one’s actions.” All actions, thoughts, blessings, and indeed afflictions have a seed. They have a beginning, and it is what we have to look for when examining our actions. The birth of our actions is as important as the t’shuvah for it. Our gossip, our treating others poorly, our demeaning others and ourselves do not exist in a vacuum. We have to explore why we do what we do. In fact, without examining the seed of our actions, without asking ourselves “Why did I do it?” we cannot make complete t’shuvah.
Rabbi Igael Gurin Malous