The Purity of Tzarat (Speech)

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This week, I’m going to talk about Tzarat (Biblical Leprosy). It might seem like a particularly boring subject, but I think it’s fun. I think, by the end of this, you will too.

Let’s step into it by starting with the basics.

First, those who suffer from Tzarat (Biblical Leprosy) are isolated. They are surrounded by others like them.

But while isolated, they repeat “I am Tamei (impure), I am Tamei.”

If everybody around them is Tamei, who are they speaking to?

They can only be speaking to themselves and Hashem (G-d).


Second, when Tzarat strikes homes, the Chumash calls out a particular building material: stone.

Only one part of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is stone: the Luchot (Ten Commandments).

Stone implies permanence.

We still have ancient stone buildings all around us.

A man, or woman, with a stone house might imagine themselves more permanent than they actually are.

They might forget their own mortality.


Third, to be cleansed you must seek out a Kohen (Priest).

You can’t diagnose yourself.

You are forced to rely on a higher authority. (like Hebrew National)


Fourth, as part of the purification process their hair is shaved and their ears, thumbs and big toes are dipped in blood and oil.

These are the processes by which the individuality of Leviim (Levites) and Kohanim (Priests) are reduced.


Finally, in addition to all the normal restorative elements, birds are brought at the end of the process.

Birds are the korbanot (offerings) of the poor and the humble.


If you combine these elements, a picture emerges.

Those with Tzarat are proud. Excessively proud. The kind of pride that yields Lashon Hara (Destructive Speech).

And they are brought low.


With Tzarat, they are brought low, reminded of their limitations and forced to seek out a higher authority.


And through this, they are cleansed.


They were Tamei because they suffered from exposure to a loss of potential.

And they are cleansed, their potential is unlocked, because they have learned to accept their own limitations.


They have learned to respect Hashem (G-d).

Of course, all of this could be done another way.


The Chumash has Hashem visiting people in their dreams. Now that might make people’s egos even bigger.

But there are other options. The Chumash even has a case of a man’s donkey telling him what’s what.

Hashem could have the people’s farm animals keeping them in check.


So why does He use this skin disease to accomplish this purpose?


When we look at the Tzarat that strikes people, there seems to be a remarkable paradox.

As we read last week,

כֻּלּוֹ הָפַךְ לָבָן, טָהוֹר הוּא

(all is turned white, he is pure)


if you are covered, head to toe, in the white – then you are pure.

Because everything is white, you are pure.

Then, as soon as a patch of healthy skin reappears, you are Tamei.


How can this be? How can more Tzarat suddenly become pure Tzarat.


The answer is simple: perhaps Tzarat itself is not impure.


Consider: the ‘disease’ of Tzarat is consistently associated – on the flesh – with the color white.

It is associated with a color of purity; the color specifically mentioned in these readings.


Perhaps, instead of being a disease, Tzarat is a spot of purity.

It is a spot of contrast.

The person is impure because he or she is being held up against a higher example – and is found wanting.

Maybe this is why the Chumash always says that the person, not the Tzarat, is impure.


But when a man or woman is totally covered, no part of their impure reality remains.

And so, they are pure.


This might seem odd, but consider:

Tzarat is called a nega.


We translate the word as a ‘disease’.

But its first uses in Chumash have a much simpler meaning.

It means to touch.


Chava is told by the snake that she cannot touch the fruit.

Avimelech tells his people that they cannot touch Sarah.

Yaacov’s ladder touches the heavens.


Read this way, perhaps the nega of Tzarat is the touch of Hashem.

Through our conceit, we fail to listen.

So, Hashem touches us.

And He reminds us of who we could be.


Only later, as the Tzarat becomes a warning to others, and then a punishment, do the colors change.


Then, the nega becomes destructive.

Then, it becomes a nega of plague.


The obvious question is: why does any of this matter today?


I think the answer is all around us.


Through our mitzvot (commandments), our chukim (symbolic commandments) and our mishpatim (practical commandments) we are meant to be a people of purity – far from lost potential.


We are meant to be that unnatural white spot on the body of humanity.

We are meant to remind mankind of the potential they can unlock through their own humility in the presence of Hashem.


When the world sees us, they often see us like we see Tzarat.

They see us as a disease.

Through their pride – because of their pride – they see us as a disease.


But perhaps we can be something else.

Perhaps we can be a blessing.


If we live Tahor lives – lives of real and symbolic distance from the loss of potential – then we can be a blessing to the world.

If we live lives that testify to the presence of Hashem, to the presence of something greater than any man or society, then we can be the touch of Hashem.


We can be a light unto the nations.


And perhaps then we can be, as Hashem promised Avraham, a blessing to the families of the world.


Photo by Jaël Vallée on Unsplash

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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