Parshat Metzora outlines the halakhot (laws) of tzaraat, divinely afflicted leprosy.
The classic example of behaviour that causes the onset of tzaraat is lashon hara – speaking ill of another. Upon receiving a diagnosis, the afflicted individual must quarantine outside the camp for seven days. Once the disease is gone, they purify themselves before returning to the camp. During this time, they reflect on their actions and work towards healing themselves spiritually through introspection and self-reflection.
When a member of the Jewish nation contracts tzaraat, they must first visit a kohen, a priest (not a doctor!) for a diagnosis. This is because tzaraat is the physical manifestation of a metaphysical issue, and the priests are responsible for the nation’s spiritual well-being and their connection to Hashem.
Two curiosities about tzaraat can be found in the Mishna (oral Torah teaching) regarding self-diagnosis and self-reporting. In tractate Nega’im 2:5, we learn that a kohen cannot rule on tzaraat on themselves or their family. Not only can tzaraat appear on one’s skin, but it can also manifest on one’s property. For example, red or green streaks would appear on one’s home. Concerning one’s home, the mishna teaches, when tzaraat affects a person’s house, even a knowledgeable person who knows what house-tzaraat looks like cannot approach a kohen with certainty to say, “A plague appeared on my house!” Instead, they have to come to the kohen with, “Something like a plague has appeared on my house,” leaving the final diagnosis up to the kohen [Nega’im 12:5].
Why is it so essential to prevent a person from making judgements about tzaraat that affects themselves?
The Tosfos Yom Tov explains that we must maintain uncertainty about the status of our own houses to train ourselves to say, “I don’t know.” Even if we are 99% sure, it’s crucial to stop ourselves from being overconfident and thinking that we always know what is right. In fact, in the scientific world, I have been told never to trust any scientist that claims that they are 100% certain of their findings – they must have done something wrong! Getting into the habit of leaving room for uncertainty and admitting that we cannot possibly know anything teaches us humility, something we should routinely exercise.
I believe an even broader lesson can be found in the concept of a kohen being unable to diagnose their tzaraat. It can be easy to look at another person and diagnose their flaws, but when it comes to ourselves and those we’re close to, it is more natural to justify our defects even if they’re “staring us in the face.” We all have biases that prevent us from seeing our shortcomings, and I think this is the message of the Mishna. We can never be truly objective in matters which concern ourselves.
Instead, let’s focus on being the best we can be – humble and self-aware – and when we embody these virtues, we eliminate tzaraat from within our communities.