By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Here’s a riddle: What do leprosy and the State ofIsrael have in common? Hopefully, nothing leaps to your mind rightaway. I, however, needed to solve this riddle before I could begin towrite this week’s parasha column: For the week that we celebrate Israel’s foundingalso happens to be the week that we read the Torah portion concerninglepers.
As we’ll soon discover, there is, in fact, aprofound connection between the two ideas, and the first step towardseeing it is understanding that the malady the parasha termstzara’at is notreally leprosy at all. The description of tzara’at is not consistentwith the medical nature of leprosy, and the treatment that the Torahprescribes for tzara’at is much more of a personal, spiritual onethan a pharmaceutical one.
Perhaps the most persuasive evidence that theportion is not discussing the disease we know as leprosy is thattzara’at can apparently affect not only one’s body but also one’sgarment, or even the walls of one’s home! Taking all of this intoconsideration, about the only conclusion we could reach abouttzara’at, is the conclusion our sages of old reached: Tzara’at was ameans through which God sent an individual a message of spiritualrebuke (usually about the sin of speaking evil of others). As soon asthe afflicted soul would recognize his or her flaws and repent ofthem, the tzara’at would cure itself.
The profound link between the land of Israel andtzara’at is to be found in the parasha’s discussion of the tzara’atthat affects the walls of the house. The section’s opening versereads, “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you asan inheritance, and I afflict the [walls of] your house with aplague.” The section then proceeds to describe the proper procedurefor addressing the outbreak.
What catches the eye of the great biblicalcommentator Abraham ibn Ezra is the opening verse’s implication thatit is exclusively in the Land of Israel that a home could be thusafflicted. While this might seem, at first blush, to be a dubioushonor, to ibn Ezra, it is actually a great tribute to the Land ofIsrael. For God would only bother to send an affliction if Hebelieved that the people receiving it were spiritually sensitiveenough to understand it. Apparently, ibn Ezra asserts, it is the Landof Israel, like no other, that can generate such people — people whowould be deeply affected by the sign of God’s displeasure, and whowould commence with the process of personal introspection forthwith.Ibn Ezra teaches us that when it comes to the Land of Israel, wemustn’t just look at the afflictions or problems themselves; we mustlook deeper and realize that we are only experiencing them because ofthe special spiritual state that we are in.
Let us look at today’s issues. Why is it thatIsrael, and all of us who ultimately have our roots there, areafflicted today by the wrenching debate over Jewish identity? Why arewe suffering this pain? It is only because, even at the close of the20th century, even after the devastation of the Holocaust, Jews stillcare deeply and passionately about their Jewishness. If no one cared,there would be no debate. Yes, we have been afflicted these past manymonths — but only because of the underlying health of the state ofour spirit.
The same can be said regarding the tension andinternal conflict surrounding the peace process. This debate, too,has generated a great deal of pain and angst and its fair share ofnational division. Here again, though, let us follow ibn Ezra’sprinciple and appreciate the high quality of the spiritual soil outof which this “plague” has grown.
Virtually everyone who has a strong opinion aboutthe political direction in Israel — both Israelis and not-yetIsraelis — articulates that position in terms of the inestimablevalue that we place on every Jewish life, and the sincere desire thatthe land we call our homeland know no more war. In almost allquarters as well, the objective of affording Palestinians the dignityof directing their own future is highly valued. We diverge only inour feelings about which strategy will bring us to these goals. Thesooner we recognize the deep commonality underlying our areas ofdisagreement, the sooner we will be able to talk more constructivelywith each other about them.
We all pray that by the time we celebrate Israel’s51st anniversary, these important issues be closer to resolution. Thereality that the nature of the problems actually speaks positively ofus is what gives us hope that our prayers might be answered. One canreally be inspired by a leprous wall.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea inLos Angeles.