[For articles on the “Sabbath of Metzora" in Hebrew, click here] [For a collection of Hebrew articles on leprosy, click here]Updated on April 20, 2023
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.
Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem (JCCO).
He now serves as rabbi at the Jewish Center in central Oregon. (JCCO).
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How does the tsaraat affliction link Moses, Miriam and Naaman (an Aramean general at the time of the prophet Elisha)? Moses’ hand contracted those skin lesions after God commanded him at Mt. Sinai to put it into his bosom, ‘’and when he took it out, behold, his hand was afflicted with tsaraat, as white as snow’’ (Exodus 4:6). Though Moses’ hand quickly regained its normative appearance, we still need to understand what he might have done for his hand to turn blanched like snow.
Indeed, the Rabbis, puzzled by the phenomenon of such skin affliction – rendered awkwardly in English as ‘’leprosy’’– commented that metsora (i.e., a person contracting such skin blanch) sounds like motsi ra, (i.e, a person who emits evil from his mouth by verbally maligning others). Which brings us back to Moses, who refused protractedly God’s charge to become the human agent who would see to the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. This despite the fact that God assured Moses that the Israelite elders (or leaders) ‘’will heed your voice’’ and join him as he appears before the Pharaoh to request a 3-day-slave-furlough for a religious observance. God’s assurance notwithstanding, Moses disputes God’s assurance and insists, nonetheless, that the opposite would happen, namely, ‘’they will not believe me nor will they heed my voice.’’
In other words, in his futile attempts to ‘’dodge’’ the divine draft, Moses slandered the leaders of Israel arguing as a matter of fact that they would not listen to him; these words were nothing short of casting a verbal aspersion at others. Indeed, when Moses gathers the Israelite leaders, the people do believe in his divine commission to facilitate their liberation from Egypt. Hence, after Moses had made that verbal slur God struck his hand with tsaraat, thus creating the first biblical connection between this affliction and slanderous speech.
This connection is buttressed when Miriam too is afflicted similarly so her skin turned blanch and looked like it was ‘’eaten away’’. What preceded Miriam’s affliction was her initiating a gossip with their brother Aaron concerning Moses’ Cushite wife, a speech that Miriam most likely would not have wanted Moses in an earshot distance. That gossip escalated immediately with the two siblings insinuating one to the other that Moses ‘’has been treating [his] prophecy as a private monopoly… as a means of privilege and power’’ (Robert Alter’s gloss). Nothing could be further from the truth, though Moses’ prophecy was superior to his siblings’, yet he ‘’was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth‘’. Miriam’s affliction with tsaraat would hence become the subject of a Torah commandment: ‘’Watch yourself in regard to the plague of skin blanch to watch carefully and to do…Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam…’’.
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Another individual of a high stature recorded in the Bible due to his skin disease – i.e., being ‘’metsora’’ – is Naaman, ‘’a valiant soldier’’ who commanded the Aramean army despite his condition. Though there is no telling why Naaman was stricken with that disease his verbal arrogance is evinced in his response to ‘’Elisha, the man of God’’ whom he solicited for a cure. Naaman derisively dismissed Elishah's advice for him to immerse in the Jordan River, an act that would cleanse his skin and return it to normal. Naaman angrily looked with condescension on the Jordan River by bragging that the rivers of his homeland in Damascus were ‘’better than all the waters of Israel’’. Such a verbal dissing might indicate why Naaman had contracted his skin disease in the first place.
Only upon superseding his hubris and subsequent immersing in the ‘’inferior'’ water of the Jordan River, thus humbling and reversing his former attitude of power and prejudice, did Naaman’s flesh become ‘’clean as the flesh of a young child’’. The Bible’s ‘’formula’’, then, to avoid tsaraat can be summed up with the following advice: ‘’IF you talk about others, make sure they’ll be happy to hear what you said.''