The odds are very high that no sermons will be delivered in shul this coming Shabbat. If they were, though, the odds are even higher that they would center around the quarantine of a metzorah, the central topic of this week’s double sedra.
Given the unusual immediacy of this topic for us, let us think a bit more deeply about it. Tzara’at is not leprosy, as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch conclusively proves from the laws of a metzorah. (If it were, why would someone with tzara’at all over his body be tahor and not subject to quarantine?)
But if tzara’at is not leprosy, what is it? And why does the Torah refer to it as a nega?
Rav Hirsch notes that “nega” comes from the root meaning “touch.” A person who has a nega has been “touched” by G-d and is being asked to take note of something. The touch occurs on the skin. Our skin is the interface between us and the rest of the world. Everything inside my skin is me; everything outside my skin is not me.
By touching a person’s skin, G-d is telling the person that his interface with the world is unhealthy and contaminated. The person is not a mensch. The way he interacts with others is seriously deficient, so he must go into quarantine to contemplate his sin and resolve to be better.
Many of us are speculating why Hashem wants us to be in quarantine. Why does He want our shuls and yeshivos and batei medrash closed? Why can we only celebrate semachot with a 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. But perhaps this sedra is suggesting that we need to think more about how we interact with each other.
It’s well known that a prime cause of tzara’at is speaking lashon hara. The Gemara (Ararchin 15b), however, lists other causes: arrogance, miserliness, promiscuity, swearing falsely, thievery, and murder. I honestly don’t think our primary problem is lashon hara. Although much remains to be improved in this area, efforts to tackle it have been very significant in the last few decades. I believe the bigger problem – and the one that lies at the heart of the sins listed in Ararchin 15b – is being too full of ourselves and dismissive of others.
With this theory in mind, here are some questions that we should perhaps contemplate.
- In our extremely divisive political climate, have we allowed our disagreement with other people’s views color our treatment of them as individuals? Can we separate our disagreements with others from the love we ought to have for them?
- The coronavirus has particularly affected extravagant Pesach programs, ostentatious weddings, and elaborate vacations. Are some of these driven by feelings of ego and showing off without sufficient consideration of how harshly they’ve affected others who feel compelled to “keep up”?
- Have we been sensitive enough to those in our society who are alone? Do we care enough for the elderly, the shut-ins, the singles – those for whom being socially distanced is the norm? 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?
- Far too many of us were arrogantly dismissive of the menacing danger and felt we knew better than the medical and government authorities; lives were thus 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?
Our leadership made many mistakes; appropriate responses were slow in coming. But what about the rest of us? Are we going to just snipe and be critical or are we going to be positive and do our part to help bring people together when we can?
Let’s use the opportunity of Parshat Tazria-Metzora to think about what we can do to end this state of quarantine and move back to being the holy nation of Hashem.