פרשת תזריע continues the theme of טומאה and טהרה and its relation with the קדושה of place. צרעת is, in these terms, the most extreme form of טומאה since someone with צרעת is excluded not just from the משכן but from the entire camp of Israel. But I want to focus on a different aspect of טומאת צרעת that is also unique.
Note that only a כהן can diagnose צרעת:
And it’s not just that the כהן diagnoses the צרעת; the טומאה doesn’t exist until the כהן declares it:
We will see how we know that עד שיאמר הכהן טמא אין כאן טומאה. But first, what does that mean—בנגע הבא עליו ראשון?
The interpretation that צרעת comes because of לשון הרע is from ספר דברים:
If you know the מפרשי תורה, this Ibn Ezra is amazing. He usually strictly deals with the פשט; here is is saying that what is a דרש in ויקרא is פשט here.
Now, the fact that the טומאה is, in effect, created by the כהן is from the פסוק:
The idea that “contamination” has to be declared to exist makes no sense if we think about טומאה as a state of the person. If the lesion is צרעת, it was צרעת before the כהן came. What is going on?
As an aside, while this idea doesn’t make sense, it hasn’t prevented it from infiltrating my hospital policy. In the olden days, the doctor would diagnose you with “a virus” and you would get better in a week. Now we have sophisticated DNA tests that can actually name your virus, and it only takes 7 days to get better. My hospital’s infection control department decided that if a patient has a named virus, he has to be on isolation. Never. Ind that it’s the same patient with the same symptoms as the previous day; yesterday he had “the common cold”—no isolation. Today he has rhinovirus—full contact isolation, gowns and gloves.
No, it doesn’t make sense. But it is how צרעת works. And more than that: we encourage the מצורע to take advantage of that:
With this ספרנו we are starting to get a hint of a consistent philosophy behind these הלכות. But first, another aspect of the כהן's role:
There are times we don’t even try to diagnose צרעת. The משך חכמה puts these together, noting the redundancy in פסוק ג:
If you think about it, when the כהן diagnoses צרעת, he is telling the person, “you have committed the grevious sin of לשון הרע”. The skin lesion that exists is just a warning from ה׳ that a problem may exist; the final judgment is from the כהן. Isn’t that an awful lot of power to give to a human being? And doesn’t that make the כהן's declaration of טמא a form of לשון הרע itself?
I think these הלכות are a lesson in how all of us are meant to give rebuke. The מצורע is commanded ובא אל אהרון הכהן.
אהרון's defining characteristic is as a pursuer of peace:
So to be able to rebuke someone else, to declare them טמא, we need all four conditions to be fulfilled: we must be entirely רודף שלום, seeking only peace, not self-aggrandizement or sense of superiority. We must fulfill וראה הכהן את הנגע, be sure that what we have observed is in fact wrong. We have to fulfill וראהו הכהן, look at the person to see if the rebuke is appropriate. Are our standards too high? Will the person respond appropriately? And is it וביום הראות; is the time and situation appropriate?
Declaring a person to have צרעת excludes him from כלל ישראל. It is not to undertaken lightly. The limits placed on it teach us how to deal with others throughout our everyday lives.