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Friday, April 8, 2011

Dead Man Walking

Yes, yes, I know it's been a while and here it's almost Shabbos and, well, okay, I am going to dash something off. Actually, I wrote out a lot of stuff but it's getting complicated and I want to make a simple observation, as it were.

Most of last week's and much of this week's parsha deals with the concept of צרעת tzaraat. This is often translated as leprosy and since it probably refers to something else, I will just use the term tzaraat for now.

Many of you know that Chazal linked the affliction of tzaraat with speaking ill of others, even if what is said is true (לשון הרע lashon hara).

What I want to point out is that this affliction carried with it signs that the person afflicted, the מצורע m'tzora,  was like a dead man (or woman).

I'll mention two points in this regard: One is that he or she was sent out from the entire encampment of the children of Israel in the wilderness (v. Leviticus 13:46 from last week's parsha and Numbers 5:2).

The significance of that was that the person was no longer part of the community for the duration of the affliction and experienced a kind of social and spiritual death.

What is more, Chazal also learn that if the m'tzora walks into a house, all of the vessels in that house become ritually impure even if he or she does not come into contact with them. Remind you of something? This is also the result of a dead body being in a house or under an enclosure (Numbers 19:14).

Why was the m'tzora punished in this manner?

Consider that the center of the encampment was the Tabernacle and the central focus of the Tabernacle was the Ark which held the Tablets and beside it was the Torah.

The height of man's existence is experienced through learning and speaking about the Torah, our connection to the Divine.

The very opposite of that is using our capacity as speaking, thinking beings to speak ill of others. Thus, the m'tzora is removed as far as possible from the Torah and from human companionship until the affliction passes.

Just sayin'....

shabbat shalom!


  1. Thought provoking and a good reminder of the things we say the affects they have on world and your title def. caught my attention - Thanks you as always for sharing

  2. Also a potent reminder that our relationships with man are part of our relationship with God and not a separate entity.

  3. Thank you both! My sentiments exactly!

  4. "What I want to point out is that this affliction carried with it signs that the person afflicted, the מצורע m'tzora, was like a dead man (or woman)."

    Perhaps I've misinterpreted or misunderstood you, but based on what followed this statement, it sounds like it wasn't the affliction, per se, that carried signs that the person was dead. Rather it was the way he/she was treated by the community.

  5. Hello Anoymous,

    I am also not sure what you mean. I will explain further, though, and let me know if this answers your question.

    In halacha, there are certain aspects of tumah (ritual impurity) which are associated with a dead human body. One of them is that a corpse renders certain things ritually impure which are found under the same roof as the corpse. The same basic halacha applies to the m'tzora. Thus, halachically there is some point of parity between the m'tzora and the corpse. This is not dependent on how the m'tzora is viewed as such by the community; rather, it is a halachic reality.

    The point about the m'tzora being made to leave the encampment obviously has social implications and I spoke about that. Again, though, it is not so much that the community per se has rejected the person; rather, the Torah dictates this practice and again it has social implications.

    It is also true, although I didn't mention this, that in later times, once Jews were living in Israel, walled cities had a status similar to that of the encampment in the wilderness. One of the similarities was that a m'tzora was also sent out of a walled city. Similarly, while a corpse could be buried within the city if there was general agreement among the authorities, once it was removed from the city it could not be brought back for reburial.

    The m'tzora, in some similar way, could not return to the city until the signs of tzaraat were gone.

    Let me know if this clarified your point.

  6. I will also add that halacha does not consider a m'tzora as a dead person for all intents and purposes. For example, if one would kill a m'tzora, he or she would still be liable for murder.