Tazria-Metzora: Isolation and the Reconstruction of Society

‘…he should dwell alone; outside the camp should be his dwelling place.’ (Leviticus 13:46)

Isolation is currently the state of humanity. Torah is about the construction of an ideal society of Israel. Society is all about interaction. Yet there is one individual who must be isolated, and the laws of that individual makeup the very centre of the Torah which is this week’s reading. This week’s teaching surely carries lessons for us.

The Midrash[1] tells us that the Torah is structured to be leading up to, and coming down from the central book, Vayikra(‘Leviticus’). Within Vayikra we have studied the laws of animals and now come to the Torah-laws of man.[2]We might have expected this section to focus to ‘love your neighbour like yourself’, or to ‘be holy’. Both of these and many other instructions are indeed within this central book. But they are not the theme of this week, which is the very epicentre of Torah. Instead, surprisingly it is the laws of one who is afflicted by the skin discolourations of tzara’as. At first sight, this seems to be far too trivial a topic to be so centrally positioned. it is not clear exactly what tzara’as is. Many non-Jewish commentators assumed it to be leprosy.[3] But the almost universal conclusion of the great masters of Torah throughout the centuries is that it could not possibly be.[4] There may be effects that are disease-like.[5] At least one commentator even claims that part of the isolation of one with tzar’aas is that it can spread through human contamination.[6] But almost all agree that whilst it has some effects of illness, its cause is not that of illness. 

What is the nature of this skin discolouration? Why does it occupy such a central place in the Torah? Why is isolation the appropriate response? And what message might it have for us today?

The first clue comes from the Talmud[7] which argues for several possible causes of tzaraas, picking up clues in the Torah itself. The most universally accepted is for Lashon hora – for negative. Derogatory or defamatory speech.[8]

The second clue is that all the elements involved in tzaraas are elements of the primal sin in the garden of Eden. That episode centred around the theme of aloneness. ‘it is not good that man should be alone’.[9]It involves the snake’s ‘evil speech’, which is hereafter called ‘the trade of the serpent’.[10] The result of the sin is the skin itself! ‘God made for the two of them garments of skin.’[11] And it turns out that the scaly skin discolouration is none other than a replica of the skin of the very serpent at the centre of the Edenic sin. ‘The serpent employed evil speech. It was punished with tzara’as’.[12]

To understand tzara’as and the message of the Sidra, it seems that we must understand more about the Garden of Eden, and the sin of Adam.

The word ‘Eden’ is actually a biblical word for time.[13] Just like a zoological garden assembles animals, and a botanical garden assembles plants, so too the ‘Garden of Time’ assembles all of time. It is not a place in space and time, but an experience of all of time from a different dimension and perspective. 

Even the name ‘Adam’ does not mean one human. It means all of humanity. The story of Eden, then is the story of all of humanity over all of space and time. The temptation of the serpent lives inside the human reptilian brain. The evil speech of the serpent lies at the root of human temptation, and the resultant shrinking of humanity into a mortal mess of fragmentation and dysfunction.[14]

One problem with this account is that the story tells us that eating from the ‘tree of knowledge of good and bad’ is sin. That seems to imply the opposite of what we are suggesting? Surely gaining moral knowledge is the solution, yet the Torah seems to see it as the problem?

In the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed),[15] the Rambam (Maimonides), reveals a brilliant insight. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are actually words that we do not use only for ethical judgements, but also for aesthetic experiences – sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feeling. Indeed, the entire vocabulary that we use for ethics is borrowed from aesthetics. When we see, hear or taste something that pleases us, we use adjectives such as ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, ‘wonderful’, and so forth. When we observe or hear about an act of moral self-sacrifice, or giving, we use the exact same words! Conversely, if we see, hear or taste something that is a negative experience, we might use words like ‘bad’. ‘horrible’ revolting’ or ‘disgusting’. If we hear about mass murder or other morally outrageous behaviour we would use the precise same words. 

The vocabulary of aesthetics labels objects or events in the world based on how they make us feel. If music makes us feel wonderful, then in our mind it becomes wonderful. If food reacts with our taste buds and neurons to produce a revolting experience then we say that it is revolting. In other words, aesthetic vocabulary labels the world not the way the world is, but the way that we are. We become the centre. Our feelings determine reality. 

In the understanding of Rambam, prior to the sin, man had access to emet and sheker – to reality and illusion. Man could grasp that God’s will was reality; all else was an illusion. The serpent’s temptation was to offer man to leave such a world and to enter one where we can be the centre of the world, like little gods who see reality through our own little eyes, and who no longer experience reality, but rather the subjective sensations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.[16]

‘the serpent said… “the day that you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and bad”’[17]

Although Rambam stops there, it is not difficult to take his thought further. Man chose to move from a world with God at the centre, and instead chose to become the centre; to be a god. The result was that every part of man wanted the same. All of a sudden there could no longer be one human soul, but now billions of broken pieces scattered over history. You and I and everyone else is one of those fragments.

Each of us sees the world through our little eyes. Two people can easily enter an argument, each convinced that they are right and the other is wrong; that their motives are good, and the other bad. If we like someone then our mind can interpret everything that they do as good. If we dislike someone then our mind can interpret everything that they do as bad.

For the rest of history, the goal of humanity is to repair this shattered world, one relationship at a time. We must bring humanity back together and bring the whole of man back into a relationship with God. Within the journey of humanity, one part, the nation of Israel was tasked to produce a microcosm of that vision first. We were asked to build a Godly civilization with the Torah guiding us how to live as one interrelated organic entity, how to keep our collective being pure and holy as a model that might eventually serve all of humanity.

We have not yet succeeded. The world is still very much broken. But the Torah, and the people who have kept it, have had an undeniable and transformative impact on human consciousness and on all of humanity. Religions, political movements and moral revolutions have overthrown many structures of thought that characterized ancient, medieval and modern civilisations.[18] The voice of the Torah is the call of the future. And its voice still cries out and demands of us to rise up and help bring the world back to the state of Eden.

At its centre lies the metzora. One who sees the negative in others and uses the power of speech to denigrate them does not belong within the camp of Israel. They live too deeply under the influence of the serpent, and the cause of strife and disintegration. They are sent into isolation. They are meant to reflect on what they have become; how much they need others.[19] They are meant to work on learning to think about relationships from the eyes of other people. How does the world look to the person I slandered? And perhaps most deeply of all, how does it look from the perspective of God? 

In truth, that person was always isolated. They may have interacted with countless people. But behind each interaction was their own self-centeredness. Their relationships were about controlling others and getting others to perform their will. Self-centredness kills society and makes a Torah vision impossible.

In being removed from society, the metzora must learn that contrary to fashionable contemporary thought, we are not actually individuals. At least we are not only individuals. We are part of families, communities and societies. We are connected with past and future. We are like cells or tissue in one entity called Israel, and ultimately part of one being called Adam. 

Today we do not have tzaraas. We do not live in an era when such behaviour might be miraculously or even pathologically marked on our bodies. At the same time that timeless call of Torah cries out for us to reflect every day we to whether we are living the serpentine, self-centred life. Do we see the world through our little eyes? Are we the gods determining our minds how everyone else ought to be? Do we feel resentment when they do not obey our directives? Do we label them bad because they thwart our plans? 

Being human, most of us probably do succumb every so often.

If so the Torah tells us that isolation can be the healthiest thing for us. It is painful and lonely. But it affords us the ability to think anew.

Lest I be misrepresented, let me state clearly that I am not attempting to diagnose any spiritual causes of the current crisis facing humanity. Nor is the comparison between our isolation and that of the metzora a perfect one. Right now, with all the isolation going on, we are not quite isolated. Many people are actually at home with others. Most people have access to technology that allows us to stay in some degree of social contact. Nevertheless, what I am suggesting is that we can still deepen our appreciation for the interconnectedness of Israel and of the whole world. We can still deeply appreciate the concentric circles of identity, of selves, families, communities, societies and so on. We can recognize that whilst we are broken pieces, separated from one another by our ‘garments of skin’, that we also share with one another a common soul that was once one in Eden, and that will be one once again.

We can recognize that if we can learn to see the world from other people’s perspectives and strive to think of it from God’s perspective, then we can bring that day ever closer

And if we can deploy the greatest interrelationship device we have – speech – to bring unity and harmony, then we would truly have learned the lesson of the metzora and have earned our place at the centre of Torah itself

May you be safe and well, and may you have a wonderful Shabbos.


[1] Shir Hashirim Raba 5:20

[2] The previous Sidra’s conclusion in 11:46 ‘this is the Torah-law of animals…’ clearly marks this delineation

[3] That translation goes back to the Septuagint

[4] See eg. Ramban 13:47; Tiferes Yisrael introduction to Tractate Nega’im;  R’ SR Hirsch, Commentary on Chumash, Introduction to nega’im amongst others. 

[5] See eg Seforno 13:2

[6] Bekhor Shor 13:36

[7] Arachin 16a

[8] See eg Rambam Hil. Tumas Tzara’as 16:10

[9] Bereishis 2:18

[10] See eg Rashi Shemos 4:3, from Shemos Raba 3:12

[11] Bereishis 3:21

[12] Shemos Raba 3:12

[13] See eg. Koheles 4:3. Also see the same root used eg. in Bereishis 18:22. It is preserved in certain Modern Hebrew words like ‘odenu’ and ‘adayen’.

[14] For Rabbinic sources on the diminishment of the status of Adam are numerous. See eg. Chagiga 12a.

[15] Guide I:2

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bereishis 3:4

[18] For some examples of literature on the revolutionary impact of Torah, see eg. Dr.Joshua Berman’s ‘Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought’, Ken Spiro’s ‘Worldperfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilisation’ and Dr. Eric Nelson’s ‘The Hebrew Republic.

[19] See eg Rambam Hil. Tumas Tzara’as 16:10; Sefer HaChinuch Chinuch 168

- April 24th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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