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