Most of this week’s Torah portion Tazria-Metzora is devoted to the plague of tzara’at, usually translated as leprosy. The Torah relates detailed descriptions of different types of leprous spots, discolorations, and several other skin ailments. According to the instructions in these chapters, these ailments are to be dealt with not by a dermatologist but by a priest, from the family of Aaron. The priest would declare these symptoms impure or pure and they would be dealt with accordingly.
The text appears to be discussing problems of a medical nature until chapter 13 verse 47 where leprous spots on clothing, and later (14:34) on the walls of a house, are introduced.
“God spoke to Moses saying: When you will come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you as a possession, I will put a plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession.” (Leviticus 14:33-34)
Leprosy on a house or on one’s clothing is certainly not within the usual range of medical problems. Furthermore, the above verse introduces the topic of “leprosy in a house” with the phrase, “When you will come into the land of Canaan,” which clearly implies that there is some connection between the land of Israel (or Canaan) and the appearance of leprous spots on homes. It is important to note that most laws in the Torah are not introduced with the phrase “When you come to the land…”
What’s more, as if to emphasize the connection between the land of Israel and leprosy on homes, the verse also ends by saying that this will occur “in a house of the land of your possession.” A rule of thumb when reading the Bible is that any apparently needless repetition is the Bible’s way of emphasizing a point. In this case, it seems, what is being emphasized is the connection between the land and this strange disease afflicting the walls of homes.
The great commentator and rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (13th century Spain) explains that since leprosy on houses and clothing is obviously “not in the natural order of things” it is clearly a sign from God. He goes on to say that this divine leprosy is a sign that the afflicted person or the owner of the possessions has sinned and that “God has turned aside from him.” He goes on to write that such a sign from God that one has sinned will only happen in the land “wherein the Glorious Name dwells.” Why should such a sign be restricted to the Land of Israel?
It seems that in Nachmanide’s view, since these leprous conditions are signs from God that a person has sinned, leprosy is – like prophecy – a revelation from God. Simply stated, when a person is afflicted with this “leprosy,” it ought to be understood as a communication directly from God to the afflicted person.
This brings us back to our original question: Why only in the land of Israel?
There are many ways that the land of Israel is special. Aside from being the place that God chose to give to His people Israel, this land possesses a sanctity and spirituality that does not exist elsewhere. This special status finds expression in many ways. One of the ways we see the special spirituality of the land of Israel is through the fact that many of the commandments in the Torah can be fulfilled only in the land of Israel. For example, all the agricultural laws, such as the tithing laws, the sabbatical and jubilee years are only practiced in the land. More broadly, the many national commandments related to proper governance of the nation of Israel can be fulfilled only in the land of Israel.
Due to the many commandments that are only applicable in the Land of Israel, one who lives in the Land of Israel has the ability to observe more of the Torah – God’s expressed will. Greater observance of God’s will naturally produces a stronger and more intimate relationship with God. For this reason, Jewish tradition teaches that full prophecy – the direct and clear communication from God to human beings – requires a closeness that can only be achieved in the Land of Israel.
“Until the Land of Israel was chosen, all lands were suitable for the word [of prophecy]. Since the Land of Israel was chosen, all other lands are unsuitable. When Jerusalem was destroyed the word [of prophecy] was banished from the Land of Israel.” – Midrash Tanchuma Bo 5
To sum up the theological logic of this important idea: Prophecy within the people of Israel can only exist in the land of Israel because the conditions of holiness required to experience prophecy only exist in the Holy Land, where the Torah can be fully fulfilled. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem greatly diminished the intimacy of the relationship between God and Israel. The service of God in the Temple could no longer take place. Less of God’s will could now be fulfilled by His people. As a result, the intimacy of Israel’s relationship with God suffered. This diminished relationship does not allow for direct communication in the form of prophecy.
Leprosy, then, can be seen as a physical form of prophecy. A person has sinned, and now, by afflicting the person or his possessions with leprosy, God is communicating that this sin has caused His relationship to that person to suffer.
When people struggle with faith in God they often say “If only God would give me a sign…” But receiving a sign from God is no small matter. To receive a sign from God, one must be on a spiritual level to merit such a sign. Imagine someone who says, “I’d believe in God if only He would talk to me directly.” Obviously, that is an unreasonable demand. It is unreasonable because prophecy – God speaking directly to people – is bestowed on a person of elevated spiritual stature who has worked to achieve a powerfully deep and devoted relationship to God. Hearing God’s “voice” or receiving signs and messages from God requires spiritual refinement to the point that one is in a position to receive such messages and signs.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, (Italy 1475-1550) in his commentary to this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 3:47), writes that leprosy of the kind discussed here only affected those members of the community who were on a high enough spiritual level to “merit” it. It is remarkable that what appears to be a cursed illness that punishes sinners would be reserved for those who are on a high spiritual level. It does not seem fair that one on a lower spiritual level does not have to worry about this punishment while those with a closer relationship to God do.
There is a powerful moral lesson in all of this. Any clearly communicated message from God is a blessing. A message from God that alerts one to a crisis in one’s relationship to God is invaluable. Imagine having a clear and obvious barometer that informs you when your relationship with God is healthy and when it needs a little work.
May we all merit being worthy of such punishments from God.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.