"Then the L-RD spoke to Moses, saying, "This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. "And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprosy is healed in the leper, "then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop.
"And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. "As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. "And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field (Leviticus 14:1-7).
It is critical to understand and establish from the outset that the Hebrew word commonly translated "leprosy" is not a medical problem which requires the care of a physician, but is the result of a spiritual problem which requires the attention of a kohen (priest). We are not dealing with a contagious disease which requires quarantine nor are we examining Scriptures that are concerned with the cure and prevention of various skin diseases. No where in the text do we see the kohanim (priests) taking any remedial measures. In fact, the symptoms described have nothing in common with skin diseases that fall under the heading of "leprosy" in medical journals.
The Torah provides us with some direction elsewhere:
Take heed in an outbreak of tsara'at (commonly rendered "leprosy)", that you carefully observe and do according to all that the priests, the Levites, shall teach you; just as I commanded them, so you shall be careful to do. "Remember what the L-RD your G-d did to Miriam on the way when you came out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).
The obligation of isolation does not arise from any considerations of physical health or well-being whatsoever. Miriam was afflicted with tsara'at and subsequently isolated for seven days for speaking slander against her brother, Moses. The isolation is a sign of G-d's anger at her careless words. The punishment decreed is the consequence of a social sin consisting primarily of slander and arrogance. Most of our sages are agreed that tsara'at is often the punishment for lashon hara (evil speech). One who is afflicted with tsara'at is known as a metzorah, 'afflicted one.'
The Sages also include shedding of blood, perjury, sexual immorality, arrogance, robbery, and stinginess as sins which may warrant tsara'at (e.g. Gehazi, King Uzziah, and Miriam). These categories may be derived from Proverb 6, which contains six things that G-d hates: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises thoughts of violence, feet that are quick to run to evil, a false witness who spreads lies, and one who incites conflict between brothers, which is considered worse than all the others combined.
These sins are not described in the abstract and are attributed to organs of the body which are misused in practicing them i.e. eyes, mouth, hands, feet, heart - the whole person is despised by G-d. Rather than using our organs and faculties given to us by G-d to conduct ourselves with humility and truth, to practice loving-kindness and justice, we are wont to practice the opposite of all these. Consequently a mark is set upon our bodies as a sign of His displeasure and we find ourselves isolated from His Sanctuary until such a time when we recognize our guilt and reflect deeply on how to rectify our character and return to Him.
So, in sum, tsara'at is the sign of a spiritual problem in need of a spiritual solution. The procedure and process described in the Torah for rectifying the problem and as understood by our Sages is quite provocative and suggestive. The Sages emphasize that the laws mentioned here, as well as the order in which they are to be performed, are indispensable. Each of the four objects described in verse four are also indispensable. Any deviation from the prescribed order of the procedures invalidates the entire ritual.
The procedure described by the sages in the Mishnah paints quite a remarkable picture for us to ponder:
How does one purify the metzorah? He would bring a new earthenware pitcher and place within it a Revi'it
[specific unit of volume] of spring water [mayim chayim i.e. living water] and bring two wild birds.
slaughters one of them over the earthenware vessel and the spring water.
He digs and buries it before him.
He takes cedar wood, and hyssop and a
red string and ties them together with the ends of the string. He
surrounds them with the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the
He dips and sprinkles seven times on the back of the hand
of the metzorah. Some say on his forehead. And so too would he sprinkle on
the outer lintel of the house.
He comes to him to send away the living bird, he does not face the sea nor the city nor the desert, as it says (Leviticus 14) "He shall send away the living bird outside the city toward the field." (Negaim 14:1-2).
Note carefully the imagery:
Blood and living water contained in an earthen vessel; the color of the hyssop is red; one of the birds is killed and bound to red cedar wood by a crimson wool thread. The bird was to be bound in such a way that its wings were stretched out and tied at the tips, as well as the tail.
Then the bird, the cedar, and the hyssop, were dipped into the living water and the blood contained in the earthen vessel and the metzorah was sprinkled and subsequently cleansed and purified. Finally, one bird dies and the other bird lives and is set free. A spiritual problem which demands a spiritual solution. Quite a picture, indeed.
Rab said: The world was created only on David's account . Samuel said: On Moses account;
R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah.
What is his [the
Messiah's] name? — The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for
it is written, until Shiloh come.
The School of R. Yannai said: His name is Yinnon, for it is written, His name shall endure for ever: e'er
the sun was, his name is Yinnon. The School of R. Haninah maintained:
His name is Haninah, as it is written, Where I will not give you
Haninah. Others say: His name is Menahem the son of
Hezekiah, for it is written, Because Menahem ['the comforter'], that
would relieve my soul,is far.
said: His name is 'the leper scholar' or 'Leprous of the House of Study'
as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our
sorrows: yet we did esteem him a metzorah, smitten of G-d, and
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, comments:
The ritual purification of the tzara'at sufferer that we read in this Parasha alludes to the true and final redemption, when the Mashiach takes the Jewish people out of exile . . . in earlier generations our Parasha was referred to not as Metzorah but as Zot Tihiyeh ("This will be . . .), but more recently the name was rejected by Jewish custom.
The inner reason for this change is that the Jewish people became more aware . . . that Mashiach's coming is very close, and it is thus inappropriate to refer to this Parasha, which alludes to Mashiach's coming, in the future tense, "This will be . . ." (Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 7, pp. 103-104; vol. 22, pp. 76-77; Sichas Shabbos, Parsha Tazria-Metzorah 5751).
This Parasha, formerly referred to as "This will be . . .," was understood as a promise, the promise of the Messiah's coming and the true and final redemption. Now it's called Metzorah, "The one who is afflicted." Hmmm.
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch