תַזְרִיעַ / מְּצֹרָע
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens “A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.
The subject of leprosy appears in the portions Tazria (Leprosy) and Metzora (Cleansing the Leper) (Leviticus 12:1-15:33). The Scripture outlines elaborate procedures for diagnosing leprosy not only in the human body, but also in houses and on clothing. Questions remain about the actual disease or diseases meant by the Hebrew word tzara’at (צָרַעַת; Strongs H6883). What is certain is that leprosy manifests in the human body as a disfiguring skin condition. In buildings or clothing it manifests as an infestation of mould that, if serious enough, renders the building uninhabitable and the clothing unwearable. It is a life-threatening condition that requires the separation of the metzora, the person with leprosy. Yet the full understanding of leprosy is not the physical manifestation, but the spiritual principle behind it. This is something Jewish sages have understood for centuries, as Rabbi David Fohrman of AlephBeta Academy explains in a series of teachings on the subject (Tazria: The Bizarre Purification Ritual of the Metzora; Metzora: Living Within the Community; Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community).
The metzora has engaged in some sort of failing that has caused him to be afflicted with a spiritual kind of malady. A malady that does not express itself as biological death, but is a kind of death. The communal part of the person has withered and it’s interesting that the Midrash speaks of “lashon ha-ra’a”—slander and haughtiness—as the kinds of things that perpetuate tzara’at. They’re anti-social sins. They are sins that attack our communal sense of belonging. They set us apart. They focus on the individual at the expense of other individuals. Those sins beckon us to see ourselves in a false light, as only individuals, and when we see ourselves that way, the communal part of ourselves withers. (Rabbi David Fohrman, Metzora: Living Within the Community)
The examples of tzara’at, or leprosy, throughout Scripture bear testimony to the truth of this principle. The first example comes from Moses’ own family, when his sister Miriam is struck with the disease as a consequence of her instigation, with Aaron, of a slander campaign against Moses (Numbers 12). The Lord Himself made the connection of leprosy with slanderous speech:
Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses? (Numbers 12:6-8 NASB, emphasis added)
Aaron then makes the connection of leprosy with death when he pleads with Moses on Miriam’s behalf:
Then Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, I beg you, do not account this sin to us, in which we have acted foolishly and in which we have sinned. Oh, do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!” (Numbers 12:11-12 NASB, emphasis added)
Several centuries later, King Uzziah of Judah made a similar mistake. Although he had done many good things and was considered a righteous king, in time he began to consider himself worthy of approaching the Lord on his own terms. One day he decided to be the one to burn the incense before the Lord in the Temple. As we saw in the account of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-7), that business was something only certain priests could do, and only in the manner the Lord had prescribed. For Nadab and Abihu, the price of their indiscretion was physical death, but for Uzziah the price was a different kind of death: he became a leper, and for the rest of his days remained secluded in his royal house, cut off from contact with the life of his community, his nation, and his God (II Chronicles 26:16-21).
Uzziah might not have been aware of something that happened in the Northern Kingdom of Israel years before he was born. In the reign of King Jehoram, son of Ahab, Israel fought continuously with Syria (Aram), suffering particularly at the hands of Naaman, Syria’s greatest general. Naaman, however, suffered from leprosy. According to II Kings 5, Naaman took the counsel of his Israelite maid and went to see the prophet Elisha in hope that he might be healed. At Elisha’s instructions, Naaman humbled himself and washed seven times in the Jordan River, emerging completely free of the disease. In gratitude he offered Elisha a reward, but the prophet refused, and thus Naaman departed in peace, determined to honor YHVH alone as the One True God for the rest of his life. Yet that was not the end of the story, for Elisha’s servant Gehazi thought he might find a way to enrich himself from this encounter. He ran after Naaman’s chariot and, when he caught up with him, asked in Elisha’s name for silver and changes of clothing. Naaman gladly granted the request, and Gehazi returned equally glad, only to be confronted by Elisha and reprimanded for his greed. Not only had Gehazi deceived Naaman and stolen from him, he had also diminished the honor of the Lord and of the Lord’s prophet. The outcome was predictable:
Then [Elisha] said to him, “Did not my heart go with you, when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money and to receive clothes and olive groves and vineyards and sheep and oxen and male and female servants? Therefore, the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow. (II Kings 5:26-27 NASB)
In these accounts we see leprosy afflicting an interesting assortment of persons: Miriam, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi; Uzziah, a ruler of the House of Judah; Gehazi, a servant to a prophet of the House of Ephraim (Israel), and Naaman, a foreigner. When Yeshua returned to his hometown of Nazareth, He made mention of one of them in His remarks at the synagogue after He read Isaiah 61:1-2 and announced the beginning of His public ministry:
And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, He went His way. (Luke 4:20-30 NASB, emphasis added)
Why were the Israelite lepers left in their condition? Because unlike Naaman the Syrian, they refused to humble themselves before the Lord and before their fellows. Their quest was for their own honor and glory and wealth, and they were quite willing to pursue that quest at the expense of their fellows, and even at the expense of their own family members. Leprosy, therefore, clung to them, and a part of them died. Cut off from community, they remained isolated and outcast – enriched, perhaps, in material things, but without the loving embrace of a friend, a parent, a child, or a spouse.
How is this different from us today in this modern world? We think of leprosy as something that happens far, far away, in tropical places where rotting diseases afflict the unwary. But is it really that far away? Do we not afflict ourselves with a more insidious and deadly form of leprosy day by day? When we speak ill of others, is that not casting leprosy on them? The desire of our heart is clear when we criticize the one who gained the promotion we were expecting, or when we argue a meaningless point just to be right, or when we curse the one who has cut us off in traffic. How much worse is it when we do these things to brothers and sisters in Messiah? If we disagree, do we choose to remain in fellowship in hope that our continued interaction will bring us all to better understanding of our God’s ways, or do we choose to cut off all contact and accuse the other of error? Which is the action of a leper?
No wonder we need a Savior to cleanse us from the mud and filth we so freely fling upon ourselves. And while the cleansing may be instantaneous, learning to remain clean is a lifelong process as we make the conscious effort to study the Lord’s standards of righteousness and live by them.
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me; then I will be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:7-14 NASB)