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“Seeing” the full picture
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“Seeing” the full picture

This week’s double parasha deals largely with the disease called “tzara’at,” traditionally translated as leprosy, but clearly not the disease we know today as Hansen’s disease.

One suggestion is that tzara’at may be impetigo, a contagious disease characterized by skin eruptions, but whatever tzara’at really is, what the Torah tells us is that it was the job of the Kohen (priest) to examine suspicious skin lesions and determine whether the person was indeed afflicted with tzara’at. And, if that was the case, the person was rendered tamei, ritually impure, until the required purification rituals took place.

The Torah says, “The priest shall examine (“ra’a,” see) the affection on the skin of his body; if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”

Rabbi Meir Simha HaKohen of Dvinsk (Latvia, late 19th-early 20th century), in his commentary Meshekh Hokhmah, had this to say:

Why the redundancy? [Why does the verse say twice that the priest shall see?] One can say that the verse refers to two different aspects. In the first, “the priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body.” This involves the physical act of looking, where the priest checks to see if there are signs of tzara’at. The second aspect, though, refers to another type of “seeing.” Thus we are told [in the Mishnah], for example, that if the person is a bridegroom in the first seven days of his marriage or if a person comes to the priest in the middle of a festival, the priest does not judge the person to have tzara’at until that week or that festival has ended, so as not to disturb his joy. Thus, the priest must “see” various external factors as well, for the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness.

There’s a story told in various versions about an “old country” rabbi. It once happened that on erev Yom Kippur, a woman came to the rabbi and showed him the chicken she had been preparing for her family’s pre-fast meal. Something about the chicken’s innards looked funny to her and she wanted to know if it was, in fact, kosher.

The rabbi picked up the chicken and turned it this way and that while he asked the woman if her husband had found work yet and if her daughter still needed to take the medicine the doctor had prescribed for her coughing. And then he handed the chicken back and told the woman not to worry, it was kosher.

After the woman left, one of the rabbi’s students who had witnessed this episode said, “Rabbi, I’m not, God forbid, questioning your learning or your wisdom, but to me it looked like you didn’t really examine all the important parts of the
chicken.”

“No,” said the rabbi, “it’s you who missed the important part. This is a poor woman with an unemployed husband and a sick child. If I had ruled that the chicken was treif, she would not have had the money to replace it. Tonight is Yom Kippur. If I have sinned against God by mistakenly ruling that a treif chicken is kosher, well, God will forgive me. However, if I made a technically correct ruling that would mean that a poor family will go hungry for two days, for that God will not forgive me.”

And so the Kohen was instructed to look twice — once with his sense of sight and once with his sense of compassion.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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