The Disease of Tzaraat Contrasted to Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

Many of the laws about tzaraat, or “scale disease,” deal with the isolation of an individual who has contracted it. Why would such a person need to be separated from the community? Was there something contagious about the disease? It appears from the text that the contagion was not physical but rather spiritual.

In looking at the Torah portion, we see that one who has contracted tzaraat (כל אשר הנגע בו) becomes impure (טמא יטמא) and must isolate himself from the entire Israelite community (בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו). [1] The rabbis teach that מצורע is a shorthand for מוציא שם רע, evil speech. The individual thus needs to be isolated because the gossip which he spread is contagious. However, why isolate him not only from the Israelite community but also from anyone else who is impure? Rashi points out that evil speech begins on a one-on-one level, בין איש לאשתו, בין איש לרעהו.[2] Therefore the offender must be isolated so that s/he does not continue to perpetuate the sin of evil speech.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz takes note of this in her book Studies in VaYikra where she comments that “the plague teaches us that society should take notice of the first sign of misconduct, however small. Just the same as a disease begins with hardly noticeable symptoms and can be stopped if detected in time, so a moral disease in society can be prevented from spreading if immediate steps are taken. Otherwise it will spread throughout the community.”[3] One piece of gossip can tear a community apart, whereas one act of kindness can build bridges unforeseen before.

Let us relate this to next week’s maxim, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך,” which translates to “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4] Rabbi Akiva asserted זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is the great maxim in the Torah. What makes this so great, and how is it even feasible to do this? Rabbi Shalom Noach Borozovsky wrote in his book Netivot Shalom, כך אמר להם הקב”ה לישראל, בני אהובי, כלום חסרתי דבר שאבקש מכם, ומה אני אבקש מכם, אלא שתהיו אובהין זה את זה ותהיו מכבדין זה את זה, “G-d said to Israel, ‘the only thing I request from you is that you love one another and honor each other.”[5]  Loving your neighbor builds community-gossiping about him/her tears it apart.

Our task is further reflected in Ramban (Nahmanides)’s statement on this verse. He asserts that the Torah commands us to love our fellow in all matters by wanting only good things to happen to him/her, like we want only good things to happen for ourselves.   We should strive to want the best for those around us.[6] Often gossip emanates from jealousy or personal insecurity, whereas confidence and security in oneself can lead to wanting only good for others as well.

When we have the temptation to gossip or to deman others, let us instead turn away from this temptation, as once we engage it is all the more difficult to turn back. Similarly, when we hear the words ואהבת כמוך לרעך in next week’s Torah reading, let us reflect on what we can do to advocate for those around us and to show them genuine affection. Let us also strive to be happy for what they have, even when they have something that we wish we had.  By embracing those in our community and in our congregation with warmth and love and genuinely being happy for them with all of their successes, we will affirm our קהילה קדושה, our holy community, and we will steer clear of gossip and resentment and truly fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

[1] Leviticus 13:46

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 13:44 ד”ה בדד ישב

[3] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in VaYikra p. 137-18.

[4] Leviticus 19:18

[5] Netivot Shalom, Tazria, page 61.

[6] Ramban on Leviticus 19:18

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