From time to time, we encounter new strains of a virus that science is helpless to control. Imagine what it must have been like in ancient times, when almost every illness was like that. Tsara'at (usually translated as "leprosy," but including a much greater range of ailments of the skin) is the Bible's prime example. No wonder it is labeled a plague -- a disease we cannot cure.
They are also diseases that spread. Suspected cases of tsara'at were, therefore, referred to the priest for diagnosis. But diagnosis and containment were all that he could do.
Our rabbis knew almost as little about disease as their biblical forebears. They, too, had no control over diseases like tsara'at. So when the rabbis dealt with our portion, they deftly changed the subject to something they did have control over: slander, motsi shem rah, arising from a somewhat far-out word play on m'tso ra, the portion's title.
Behind that interpretation, perhaps, is the commonality of quarantine. People with plagues are put in isolation. Slander, too, makes people pariahs. The truly interesting thing is not how the rabbis arrived at slander as their topic, but the fact that they did at all. Did the rabbis really think that m'tsorah meant motsi shem rah, or that slander was the cause of skin disease? Or were they just seeking an excuse to exchange "beyond our control" for "what we can do something about"?
Rav Joseph Soloveitchik defines this as the attitude of "Halachic man."
"Halachic man," he says, "approaches existential space with an a priori yardstick -- with fixed laws and principles, precepts that were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai: the imaginary bridging of a spatial gap less than three handbreadths; the imaginary vertical extension, upward or downward, of a partition; the imaginary vertical extension of a roof downward to the ground; the bent wall; the measurement of four square cubits ... "
I am not, by Soloveitchik's standards, "halachic." I do not accept the entire Torah as unchangeable "precepts that were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai" and, therefore, eternally binding on me.
But I am not on that account oblivious to the profundity of halachah.
This Jewish way of measuring reality by what God would want us to do with it is the attitude that gives us so many advances. It looks askance at ascetic withdrawal from the world.
This is not to say that Jews are intellectually moribund or uninterested in theory. The legal system exists for its own sake, a mirror of God's own mind. "Halachic man" (or woman) seeks a halachic understanding of everything -- even of sacrifice, as in our portion.
Halachah is the Jewish equivalent of a Platonic ideal universe -- not the real one that confronts us at any given moment, but the world transformed by human agency.
From Tazria-Metzora, I learn the specific lesson of avoiding slander; but more importantly, I learn the need to invest my entire being in measuring the world by at least the outward limits of what might some day be possible. The universe is given to us by God, but we give it back, with our own activity engraved upon it.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York. Contact him at: [email protected] .