The Hidden Meaning of Tzara'at (skin disease)
Shabbat, April 8, 2000

The Torah parsha for this week, Leviticus 12-14, is ostensibly about skin diseases: tzara'at
     But as we'll see, this external condition is really a sign of an internal moral condition.
     Though outwardly, tzara'at would seem to be a mysterious skin disease,
     inwardly, it reveals something about the human condition, from God's point of view.
     Are you curious?

Leviticus 13:1. The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.
Some older translations refer to these skin conditions as leprosy,     
     and the NIV which I read translates it as infectious skin disease,
         but these translations are misleading.
     The NIV Study Bible notes that the notion of infectious disease was unknown back then.
     Moreover, Rabbi Hirshfield has argued that Torah really doesn't describe
         the disease known today as leprosy, technically called Hansen's disease.
     First of all, the symptoms described here--with much emphasis on small white patches--
         simply do not correspond to any symptoms of Hansen's disease.
     Secondly, in Torah the Cohen or priest inspects the affected skin after a week,
         but Hansen's disease progresses much too slowly to see a difference in a week.
     Thirdly, Torah has a very strange prescription for a total outbreak of tzara'at:
         13 "The priest is to examine him, and if the disease has covered his whole body,
         he shall pronounce that person clean. Since it has all turned white, he is clean."
     That's a pretty amazing paradox: if a person is totally covered, then he is totally clean!
         Now this certainly makes little medical sense, right?
         Yet it is actually a hint about the spiritual nature of the problem.
     Are you curious?

The ancient Rabbis argued that tzara'at refers not to a bodily disease
     but to a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment designed to show
     a malefactor that he must mend his ways.
In other words, tzara'at is not so much a disease as a form of supernatural spiritual discipline.

The biblical treatment of tzara'at was complete isolation:
     the person was to live outside the camp, cloak himself up to his lips,
     and cry out, "Unclean, unclean!"
     Man! That's just about the most extreme form of social exclusion I could imagine!

The ancient Rabbis argued that the inward cause tzara'at was sin, particularly anti-social sins,
     such as lying for selfish ends, sexual immorality, false oaths, pride, and especially slander.

In Matthew 15:18-20, we find Yeshua in agreement with the other Rabbis:

"The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'."
If you'll turn to Numbers 12, you'll find more support for the Rabbinical interpretation.
     In Num 12, Miriam, Moshe's own sister, was afflicted with tzara'at.
     Does anyone remember why Miriam was so afflicted--what was her transgression?
     Numbers 12:1. Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife
         for he had married a Cushite. "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?"
         they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And the LORD heard this.
     Miriam and Aaron (the order of their names suggests that Miriam was the instigator)
         committed the sin of lashon hara, or evil tongue, speaking against Moses.
     Actually, it was true that Moses had a Cushite wife,
         but repeating even the truth, with selfish or prideful motives, is sin.
         After all, why was Miriam bringing this matter up? To malign Moshe.
     People tend to make light of the sins of the tongue--gossip, backbiting, tale-bearing--
         but HaShem takes it very, very seriously!
     Num 12:9 says that "The anger of the LORD burned against them."
         10. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam--
         leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy (tzara'at)
         11 and he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we
         have so foolishly committed."
         13 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "O God, please heal her!"
     HaShem did, but he also insisted that Miriam be excluded from the camp for seven days,
         then she would be brought back in, healed.

Through tzara'at God was rebuking anti-social behavior--whether out of pride or selfishness,
     failing to respect let alone love others--
     by making it very obvious that the offender has sinned and must be excluded from society.

Lashon hara--evil tongue: it's very serious, very bad, at least G-d thinks so.
     Yet it is probably the most widely disobeyed of all His commandments.
     Lev 19:16 teaches: "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people."
     James 4:11 repeats this commandment: "Speak not evil one of another."
     And here is what Yeshua, our Chief Rabbi, says, in Matthew 12:35-36:
         "I say unto you, For every idle word that men shall speak,
         they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment."
         Pretty ominous, hmm?

Our words have the power either to build up or to tear down.
     With our words, we can edify, building up trust and respect and community,
         or can destroy, tearing down reputation and relationships and spiritual intimacy.
     In 2 Cor 12:20, Rabbi Sha-ul, expresses lists the sins of "quarreling, jealousy,
         outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder."
     Do you see how damaging bad-mouthing can be to mishpochah, to family, to community?
     That's what was happening with Miriam and Aaron.
         Even though it was true that Moses had a Cushite wife--ach! He married a goy!
     What was the point of bringing it up then? Only to tear him down.
     So you see, even the truth, spoken negatively, is destructive.
     Lashon hara can divide sister & brother, wife & husband, spiritual as well as natural kin.
     Prov 16:27-28: "An ungodly man digs up evil, and in his lips is a scorching fire.
         A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends."
The Chasan Sofer comments that the different types of tzara'at illustrate different forms
     of lashon hara:
     1) Sais (a rising): A person might speak against others to raise his own stature.
     2) Sapachas (a scab): A person might join (sipuach) a group of people
         who speak against others. In ordinary circumstances, he would not speak lashon hara
         but to be sociable or to fit in, he would.
     3) Baheres (a bright spot): A person might have done something against someone else,
         and in an attempt to exonerate himself, he speaks against that person.
         He clarifies (bahir) or rationalizes his behavior.

I suspect that these forms of lashon hara are familiar to us. Wouldn't you say so?
     Well, I'm sure glad we haven't any outbreaks of tzara'at lately, aren't you?
     HaShem is merciful!

Imagine what it must have been felt like to have this malady,
     and be excluded from the community and have to cry out "Unclean, unclean"?
     Have any of you ever felt unworthy? Unworthy of God, unworthy of others?
     Well, here's the ultimate picture of unworthiness--the unclean metzora.
And it's true, because of your sin, you are unworthy, unclean before G-d.
     Any attempt to clean yourself up will never work.
     As Isaiah 64:6 says, "All of us have become like one who is unclean,
         and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags."
     Surely this is a picture of the unclean metzora, covering himself in filthy rags.
     So, the prophet says, all human attempts to cover up one's sins with righteousness
         your own tzedaka, is futile.
     Today, Rabbis claim that acts of tzedaka will somehow atone for our sins.
     But the prophet, speaking by the Ruach HaKodesh, begs to differ!
     And Torah, in Leviticus especially, insists that the only thing that atones for sin
         is the blood of an innocent goat or lamb,
         which points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
     For what makes you unworthy isn't just dirt, you can wash away with soap or Fantastic.
         It's the stain of sin on your heart.
     As Psalm 130:3 says, "If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
         But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared."

I believe G-d has given us this picture of the unclean metzora,
     in filthy rags of self-righteousness,
     so that we might fear Him, repent,
     and be restored to Him and to the heavenly community.
     For the mercy of our G-d is awesome!
G-d accepted Moshe's intercession for his sister,
     and G-d supernaturally cleansed her tzara'at.
     The purpose of her exclusion was not ultimately to reject her.
     Rather it was to give her an opportunity to repent and be restored to the community.
     "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God."

I believe we get a picture of HaShem's awesome mercy in his paradoxical prescription:
     13 "the priest is to examine him, and if the disease has covered his whole body,
         he shall pronounce that person clean. Since it has all turned white, he is clean."
     If a person is completely covered with tzara'at, then he is clean?
Are any of you getting the picture? I think it's important that you get the picture.
     Take a moment to reflect, using your spiritual imagination.
     Imagine yourself, wanting to come into the presence of G-d.
     For He has been inviting you to come: come near, come into my presence, my child!
     But you can't, because you've got a scab on you.
         The angelic cherubim block the way into his awesome presence, for a little scab?
     If you see yourself as only a little sinful, then from G-d's point of view,
         then you are unclean, unclean!
     You are unfit to be in His presence, or really decent society--the society of heaven!
     You can protest all you want about the size of your scab, you're not going any further.
     You can scrub at that pimple all night, you'll never be clean enough, unworthy of His glory
     You mght as well as see yourself as you really are--
         covered with uncleanness and moral filth from head to toe!
     Now, imagine, the Cohen haGodol, the High Priest himself has come, to judge you.
         He sees that you are indeed covered with tzara'at, from head to toe.
         You agree--you really are completely sinful and unable to clean yourself!
     Then the Cohen smiles. Excellent! I've got good news for you!
     For if you let Him make you clean, then you will be really clean, holy, and worthy of Him!
     In Luke 5:13, Yeshua says to the leper, covered with tzara'at: "I am willing. Be clean!"

It was for this reason that Messiah Yeshua came into the world, the first time,
     not to condemn but to save, to wash away your sins.
     Because you cannot clean yourself, He came to make you clean.
     You are worth it to Him.
     Hebrews 13:11-12 explains,

The high priest--cohen ha-gadol--carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies were burned outside the camp. And so Yeshua also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
Yeshua suffered, endured the terrible sting of disgrace outside the city gate, for you.
     You are worth it to him. Worthy dying for--to restore you, to make you clean again!
When G-d created the first man and women, in His own image He created them.
     They were glorious! They didn't need any clothes, for they wore the glory of G-d.
     Believe it or not, that's still how G-d see you.

He knows about your sins and the sins of your family that has made you feel so unworthy,
     covered from head to toe with it.
     Still, He says, I have a way to restore you, to recreate you in my perfect image,
         to clothe you completely in glory again.
     That way is through the atonement of Messiah Yeshua.
     After he was whipped and stripped and hung on a wooden beam,
         he looked like a man covered from head to toe with tzara'at, too!
     He who was completely without sin, a spotless lamb,
         took upon himself all the sin of the world, so that you might be clean.
     1 John 1:9 promises, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just
         and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
     It's a paradox: though you are unworthy, covered with sin,
         you are worth it all to him, for He loves you that much!
         With all His heart He wants to atone for you, to cover you with his sinless blood.
     Though you are a man or woman of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips,
         unholy, unfit to stand in His presence (see Isaiah 6:5),
         he will make you holy, so that you might "have confidence
         to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Yeshua" (Hebrews 10:19).

Let's pray.
     If you have struggled with unworthiness, you can repent now.
         Believe in your heart that Yeshua's sacrifice is sufficient for you! Dayenu!
         Believe that you really are worth it all to Yeshua. You are worth it to Him.
         Trust in Messiah's sacrifice for you. Receive his mercy and be clean.
     If you have struggled with sin, whether it be lashon hara or pride or selfishness
         or even idolatry--making anything more important than G-d himself--
         you can repent now.
         Believe in your heart that Yeshua's sacrifice is sufficient for you! Dayenu!
         Receive his mercy and be clean.
     If you have struggled with unbelief,
         like Thomas insisting that you have to see for yourself,
         and now you are suffering the consequence of the sin of unbelief,
         separation from His presence, which causes so much grief and suffering,
         to you and also to Him.
         You can repent now.
         The prophet says to you, in Isaiah 53:5, "He was pierced for our transgressions,
             he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace
             was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."
         By his wounds you are healed, spiritually, emotionally, physically.
         For Yeshua was willing to touch the leper, ha-metzora, so that he might be healed.
         It's another amazing paradox:
             Torah decrees that one who touchs an unclean person is made unclean (Lev 5:3).
             Yet when Yeshua touched, all could see the miracle: he made the unclean, clean.
             (Luke 5:12-14)
         Trust in your heart that Yeshua's sacrifice is sufficient for you! Dayenu!
         Say yes to Him!
         Receive his mercy and be clean.

Comments for the Rabbi?