Friday, April 16, 2010

Through the Looking Glass

Among the many mysteries of Tzaraas, the involvement of the Kohen stands out.

While no one can claim to really understand what Tumah is, the Torah always treats it as an objective reality: you catch it and you are Tamei. There is no need for a psak Beis Din or the pronouncements of a Kohen. But Tzaraas is different. Even if you are diagnosed with Tzaraas, even if your symptoms match the Torah's descriptions to a tee, you are only Tamei if and when a Kohen declares you so - and then you are Tamei from that point forward. The Kohen is not informing us of the existence of Tumah; he is literally creating the Tumah by his say so. Beyond a biblical anomaly, it is difficult to understand how Tumah could be dependent on a verbal proclamation. Simply put: Either you got it or you don't. Who needs the Kohen?

Another question: A person guilty of a crime of "Kareis" is spiritually disconnected from the nation, but he is still a fully functioning member of the community. However, a person with Tzaraas who is declared Tamei by a Kohen must leave the community and "live alone - outside the camp is his dwelling place" (Vayikra 14:36). The requirement to live alone has no parallel in all of Torah.

One more mystery, far more basic: Why, among all the hundreds of Biblical prohibitions, does a violation of Lashon HaRa cause our skin to break out? A Jew can commit crimes far worse than Lashon HaRa without any visible allergic reaction. (Tzaraas is only found in the Torah as the result of Lashon HaRa, cf. Shemos 4:1,6; Bamidbar 12:1-10. However, there are a few other sins that can cause Tzaraas, cf. Arachin 16a.)

Concerning anyone who tells Lashon HaRa, God says, "He and I cannot coexist in the world." (Arachin 15b)
Cannot coexist with God? Well then, if he isn't in the same world as God, where exactly is he?! There is only one possible answer. A person who speaks Lashon HaRa enters different world; a world of his own creation. A world without God.

In God's world, God is Judge. He judged it daily as He created it and his judgment was consistently positive: "And God saw that it was good..." It could be no other way. If God is good then His creation is good.

Even Man, a being clearly capable of great evil, can be judged only by God. The factors of human behavior are so complex, the plethora of genetics and hormones, upbringing and conditioning, innate drives and ways of thinking are so diverse, to be judgemental is not merely presumptuous, it infringes on the divine.
This accounting [of a person's spiritual status] depends not on the number of merits and sins but on their size. There are merits which outweigh several sins... and sins that outweigh several merits... This accounting can only be done by the mind of the God Who Knows. He is the one who knows how to measure merits against sins. (Rambam, Laws of Teshuva 3:2)
One guilty of Lashon HaRa, character assassination, is guilty of more than a crime. Seeing evil where God sees good, he debates God on the nature of His creation. And declaring his fellow man unholy, he usurps God's role as judge, taking it upon himself to judge his fellow man. To speak Lashon HaRa is thus to deny God. Indeed, the Talmud compares one who speaks Lashon HaRa to a Kofer B'Ikar, a heretic (Arachin 16b).

The nature of this person's heresy is such that it places him entirely outside of the community. He has stepped out of the world where God is judge, creating an alternate reality where man is judge. And he is doomed to live in the hell of his own creation.

In God's world, good, evil, purity and impurity are objective truths. Man's opinion on these matters is obviously irrelevant. Step through the looking glass into a world of negative images and spiritual reality is defined by human subjectivity. In the world of Lashon HaRa, a person's purity or impurity, his very spiritual state, is determined not by God but by the Kohen - a fallible religious leader! A nightmarish universe indeed!

In God's world, man's spiritual state is a private affair, knowable to God alone. But in the world of Lashon HaRa, man is judge, and man can only judge what he sees. The residents of this world must therefore have their rotten inner selves turned inside-out, and their ugly spiritual state becomes visible to all as Tzaraas.

Here perfidy is the new morality. A man completely covered by Tzaraas is perfectly fine (13:13), but healthy skin is a sign of impurity (13:10). Such is life in the evil realm fashioned by Lashon HaRa.  

It is no coincidence that Tzaraas also appears on the gossiper's clothing and home, ultimately leading to their destruction. This person judged others based on those very externals, creating a world where self-worth is defined by appearances. In the fascist world of fashion, styles change fast - and the critic is quickly devoured by the black hole of his own making.

Of course, man cannot live without God. The Tzaraas world is a thus a twilight zone of the living dead. Indeed, the Torah considers one infected with Tzaraas to be a dead man (cf. Bamidbar 12:12; Nedarim 64b). Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi's observation should not shock us: Tzaraas is actually decomposing flesh.

Ultimately, Hashem desires rehabilitation, not annihilation. The marvel of Torah is that both are achieved simultaneously. Measure for measure, the gossiper loses his house, his clothes, his good looks, and his social circle. For him this is indeed death. A favorite expression of the gossiper is apt: he literally "has no life." Stripped of every vestige of his old identity, this man is forced to forge a new one, one founded on the value of his soul, not that of his house or his designer clothes. When that happens, he will finally see through the mirage of materialism and will cease judging himself and others by the irrelevant barometers of looks, wealth and social standing.

Understanding how Tzaraas rehabilitates a person helps explain a surprising teaching quoted by Rashi. The phenomenon of Tzaraas on a house is introduced with these words: "When you come to the land of Canaan which I am giving you as an inheritance and I place a plague of Tzaraas on a house of the land of your inheritance..." (14:34). Rashi explains the emphasis on the land of Canaan: "It is informing them that Tzaraas will come because the Ammorites hid gold treasure in the walls of their homes... because of the Tzarras, the house will be demolished and [the treasure] will be found." When the Jews conquered Canaan, they took possession of the existing Canaanite homes. Unbeknownst to them, gold was hidden in the walls for safekeeping. When the house gets Tzaraas, the walls will be knocked down and the treasure will be discovered.

On the face of it, this teaching is incomprehensible. A house gets Tzaraas when those who live there speak Lashon HaRa (Rambam, Laws of Tzaraas 16:10). Why would Hashem reward gossipers with gold?! Based on what what we have learned, the answer is clear. Hashem wants to factor out the financial loss. One might be tempted to think that the destruction of his home is a mere penalty for violating the laws of Lashon HaRa. Hashem therefore gives him gold to reimburse him for his loss. It's not about the money. It's about identity.


One who speaks Lashon HaRa abandons God, leaves the community, and creates an ugly, alternate universe. Is atonement possible?
The academy of Rebbi Yishmael taught, "For which [sin] does the [burning of] Ketores [in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur] atone? For Lashon HaRa. Let something private come and atone for something private." (Yoma 44a)
To rectify the departure inherent in Lashon HaRa, the nation's representative, the Kohen Gadol, must enter God's inner sanctum. And there he deodorizes the rot of Loshan HaRa by perfuming God's beautiful world.
And God saw everything that He made, and behold, it was very good... (Bereishis 1:31)
Who is the man who desires life? Lover of days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil... (Psalms 34:13-14)
Who... desires life... to see good! Seeing good is God's perspective. The perspective of life. If you want to be a part of the world of the living, then guard your tongue... Otherwise, you're out through the looking glass.

I, for one, prefer God's world.

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