This week, in the parasha Tazria-Metzora, we encounter a strange phenomenon, the rash, many times mistranslated as leprosy. There are many instances of it occurring in the text, from Miriam when she gossips about Moses’s wife, to mysterious occurrences on buildings or clothing. What we never get is a clear reason for why it occurs. The rabbis have tried to tease out rationales and almost universally use gossip as the culprit. There are a few issues with this explanation; number one being that there is no clear indication in the text that gossip is indeed the cause. Furthermore, it is important to remember that tzarat (the rash) is not a physical ailment and cannot be transmitted through the normal means of contagious diseases. It is a ritual affliction.
A very interesting possibility is raised in the midrash, a very early collection of rabbinic explanations of the Torah.
“Rabbi Avin said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The verse says ‘And if her means do not suffice for a sheep [she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons] (Lev. 12:8), and what is written immediately after it? ‘When a person has on the skin of his body [a swelling, a rash or a discoloration] (Lev. 13:2). What does one have to do with the other? Said the Holy One of Blessing, ‘I tell you to bring a sacrifice for childbearing and you don’t do it; on your life, I will make it necessary for you to go before the Kohen, as it is written [about tza’arat diagnosis], ‘It shall be reported to Aharon the Kohen’ (Lev. 13:2)….(Vayikra Rabbah15:6).
The rabbis are putting forth an idea that we get afflicted with tzarat, not because of anything we did, but because of the things we did not do. We want to assume that we have control over our lives, but how many times has it happened that events prove to us otherwise? An illness or unexpected surprise? An accident? Any number of things that continue to illustrate conclusively that we are not always in control. Yet, the rabbis are not simply showing us that we are not the active agents in our lives. True, there are events that we cannot control, but there are also many elements we do control. The rabbis are forcing us to accept that our reactions to those events are absolutely within our control. The way we speak to, or act towards our neighbors is absolutely within our power. The manner in which we cope with sudden changes in our lives is under our direction.
This idea is probably best illustrated by the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I pray this week that we accept that there are things we have no control over, but that is not license to abdicate control over everything. Using the gifts we have been granted, let us continue to act in such a way that brings us closer to one another and to the almighty.