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29 Adar II 5760 - April 5, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Plagues of Human Beings

by L. Jungerman

"When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab or bright spot . . . " (Vayikra 13:1).

There are many terms used to describe mankind: man, male, human being, person, and their Hebrew counterparts. The most respected term is odom, as it is written, "And Elokim created the odom in His image, in the image of Elokim did He make the odom." We see, then, that this term is synonymous with "divine image."

If so, wonders the Alshich in his commentary, why does the portion on plagues and diseases use this very term? Aren't these a form of punishment for one who slanders? Could the Torah not suffice with a less respectable label, such as gevver or enosh? Why, precisely, odom?

The Alshich explains that herein lies the very core of tzoraas, that fascinating disease whose treatment is so unconventional and unnatural. Neither medications, salves or doctors are required, rather the kohanim who prescribe confinement. It is truly puzzling why the treatment was not relegated to men of medicine but to men of the spirit, and of these, precisely the kohanim. Not to the Torah scholars who are versed in the laws of lesions -- but to a Kohen, even if he be a total boor.

The Rambam describes it as follows in the Laws of the Impurity of Leprosy, Chapter Nine: "Impurity and purity are dependent upon the Kohen. How is this? A Kohen who cannot see to distinguish the disease allows a wise man to see it. That scholar says: Proclaim it `impure,' and the Kohen declares: `Impure.' Or: if the scholar sees that according to the laws of impurity, it is pure, he says to the Kohen, `Say: Pure' and the Kohen declares: `Pure.' If it is necessary to quarantine the victim, it is the Kohen who must issue this ruling, since the Torah says, `By their mouths will be every quarrel and every plague.' Even if the Kohen is a minor or a shoteh, the scholar puts the words into his mouth; while he makes the decision whether to quarantine or to release him, it is the Kohen who must declare it verbally to put it into effect."

Let us try to imagine the scene: R' Akiva Eiger or the Vilna Gaon are standing next to the `leper' and examining his lesions. With their expertise, they conclude that he is pure and must not undergo confinement, or vice versa. But they cannot rule it. There is a young child there, a minor Kohen, or even a witless Kohen, and only he can pronounce the ruling. The sages prompt them, "Say: impure," or "Say: pure." And this is the only way that his fate can be determined.

The secret behind these inscrutable laws, says the Alshich, lies hidden in the beginning of our parsha: Odom! This kind of leprosy is no regular disease or affliction of the skin. It is a spot, a blot of impurity that erupts upon the delicate and pure backdrop of that noble title of Man: bearer of the divine image.

Tzoraas is a disease in mankind, by virtue of his being of that stature. "You are called Odom, and not so idolaters" (Yevomos 61). You bear that noble title of man because you are the repository of the pure soul, which is divine, and your image is G-dly. When you sin and contaminate yourselves with misuse of your tongue, your power of speech, you create a dark blotch on the pure whiteness of your souls. It creeps up and shows itself on the outside surface. The result is: "When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab or bright spot."

Therefore, says the Alshich, the treatment for this stain of leprosy can only be dispensed by the Creator, Himself, the Master of souls. And the kohanim have always been the emissaries, the representatives of Hashem on earth.

Thus, when the Kohen pronounces the man "pure," this means that Hashem declares him: Pure. Hashem maintains the purity of the soul and He cleanses its stains. This is done through the repentance of the sinner. All the while that he sat in isolation, an outcast, outside the camp, he contemplated his sins and thought about what he had done to his soul. The repentance and the remorse were duly accepted and his soul became cleansed of its contamination and was pure, once again.

If the Kohen declares him to be "impure," "quarantined," it is the Shechina speaking through him, using him as Its mouthpiece. The spirit is sullied; a blotch of sin cowers over him, upon his pure soul, and he must be separated from society until he realizes what he has done to his soul. As Rabbenu Yonah states: "Even more, that I was cruel to my precious soul and it became impure through my surrender to my evil drives."

Therefore, concludes the Alshich, "In olden times, when people were better than they are nowadays, they were afflicted with tzoraas. Is this reason that now, that evil talemongerers have increased exceedingly, they should go unpunished? The fact is that faith has decreased among mankind and, therefore, their spirits are not disgusted so much by the impurity, and it does not show on the outside, like in the leprosy of yore."

A spot is visible only when the background is pale and pure. A clean, righteous spirit abhors the impurity of the misuse of speech and it reacts by erupting with tzoraas. Against a background of a coarse, vulgar spirit, which is dirty from accumulated filth, the blotch that erupts will not even be noticeable.

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