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The mystery of tzara’at – The Australian Jewish News

WHY does nobody contract the skin disease tzara’at nowadays? If in fact it was a Heavenly response to certain human failings, are we superior to our ancestors?

Actually, the fact that tzara’at – often mistakenly termed “leprosy” – does not afflict modern man and woman has nothing to do with our superiority but just the opposite.

Our sages declare that tzara’at is not a physical ailment but rather a bodily manifestation of a non-physical malaise. This need not surprise or mystify us. Even today there are parallels. For example, when we find ourselves in a situation of danger, panic may cause us to develop goosebumps (or goose-pimples as they are called in the old country) on our skin. What is this if not a physical symptom arising from a non-physical condition. In this case, the cause is emotional. In the case of tzara’at the cause is spiritual.

Human emotions by and large have not changed and humans still become fearful or panicky in certain situations.

However, spiritually, we have been on a constant trajectory of descent ever since Sinai. Even in ages less secular than ours, our spiritual antennae have long been desensitised. Certainly since the second Jewish exile in 70CE, we have inhabited a natural, cause-and-effect universe where we are no longer on the level of capability to witness or recognise open miracles like manna falling from the sky, water seeping from a rock, seas or rivers splitting or prophets and highly-spiritually-charged individuals praying for rain to fall or cease and being answered immediately.

Herein lies the key to our question.

Tzara’at, say our rabbis, came about principally through certain negative behaviours.

Our ancestors of Biblical times were not by any means immune to sin. But due to their higher spiritual sensitivity, notwithstanding that they sometimes failed, even abysmally, they knew they had failed. Consequently, they developed the bodily manifestation of tzara’at on their skin (or more rarely on their garments or in their houses) which would act as a signal to mend their aberrant conduct.

Their consultants were not physicians but the spiritual “doctors” of the nation, the Kohanim, whose job it was to diagnose and set them on a path towards amelioration and cure.

Nowadays, the pricks of conscience we may have when we do such wrongs are insufficient to cause spiritual “goosebumps”, i.e. tzara’at, to break out on our skin.

We may feel ourselves better off. On one level we are! But would we voluntarily anaesthetise ourselves every day so as not to run the risk of feeling physical pain? Obviously not, as we would then equally fail to feel any pleasurable sensations. Moreover, absent pain, we would not be alerted to danger.

Unfortunately – or in some ways fortunately – we have been spiritually anaesthetised for the past two thousand years. The downside is that firstly we don’t feel the euphoria of positive spiritual achievement. And secondly, self-correction has become challenging because the failing within us is much more difficult to detect.

May Mashiach come, and may we raise ourselves spiritually to the level where we don’t even require tzara’at to remind us of what is right and what is wrong!

Extracted from the author’s newest parasha book In Heaven’s Name Why?


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