June 14, 2024
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When the Righteous Suffer

Chazal make at least seven suggestions (Arachin 16a) to help us make sense of the cause of the mysterious disease of tzara’as. Presumably, if we understand the disease and its spread, then we can control it, thereby protecting ourselves. However, when multiple reasons are given for a phenomenon, it’s a good indicator that no single reason is satisfactory. (See, for example, Chazal’s attempt to understand/explain the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu in last week’s parsha.)

Shabbos occupies a fraction of space in the Torah compared to its lengthy description of tzara’as (a death-like illness characterized by skin decay that serves as the archetype of all God-given diseases). Yet nowhere in our parshiyos does the Torah give any reason for tzara’as, or put any judgment on the person who is afflicted with it. As Moshe and Miriam are the only Torah personalities to have tzara’as, might this imply the need to be on a tremendously high spiritual level to receive it?

Moshe is raised “m’chutz lamachaneh,” away from the rest of the Jews. Later, he is forced to flee Egyptian society, leaving the comforts of royalty for the desert—a precursor for encountering the Divine at the burning bush. There, his hand turns white with tzara’as as a symbol that he will be an extension/agent of the Yad Hachazakah.

Like Moshe, Yosef, and our avos before them, the Jewish people themselves were displaced from areas where they lived in relative comfort to live a nomadic and uncertain existence. (Unsurprisingly, 4/5ths were not prepared to sacrifice the life they knew, and chose to stay behind in the “comfort zone” of Egypt rather than voyage into the wilderness.) Uncertainty and departure from our prior routines and way of life seem to be a prerequisite for achieving a higher spiritual stature and a closer encounter with God.

When Bilam praises the Jewish people for dwelling alone (Bamidbar 23:9), he appears awed by their courage to be contrarian, to live in relative isolation, and through that to achieve greater spiritual heights. How appropriate, then, to see this language used with the metzora too: “badad yeshev…” It’s as though the Torah is praising him/her for the courage to isolate and rewards him with multiple encounters with a kohen who embodies spiritual pursuits and dveikus to Hashem.

Viewed this way, the narrative of shame and stigma that so often accompanies the metzora belittles her stature and attributes false assumptions about the reason for the disease and our ability (rather than God’s) to control it. Chassidic sources point out that the root of tzara’as is striking. The first letter is “tzadik”—a righteous person—followed by reish and ayin, spelling ra, “evil”; the metzora personifies the age-old question that screams from the core of so many who suffer: tzadik v’ra lo, why do the righteous have to suffer? Acknowledging that sometimes the reasons why and who disease strikes is elusive, while not a comfortable feeling, can allow us to better acknowledge the Yad Hashem behind all that happens. The metzora—and the associated concepts of disease and isolation—can serve as a reminder that chaotic and uncertain periods of our life can lead to greater God awareness and closeness.

Spiritual purity and impurity—life and death—pervade these parshiyos and our personal and collective history. Today we find ourselves m’chutz lamachaneh, isolated from our everyday routines and places, surrounded by reminders of our own fragility (if not on our skin then in the gadgets we hold in and strap to our hands). The loving all-powerful God we thought we knew and could explain (or even “control” through mitzvah observance) is painfully hidden.

As we unite in our experience of separateness and reflect on the implications of living in isolation, perhaps we can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that we are one step closer to Mashiach, who also embodies the spiritual qualities of tzara’as: “Mashiach is sitting and suffering together with all those who are suffering…is called a metzora because just as the metzora suffers, Mashiach suffers for the sins of Bnei Yisrael (Sanhedrin 98a/b).” Could it be that the secret and harbinger of redemption lies among all this suffering?

The Or HaChaim (14:9) writes that the metzora banished outside the camp is compared to Bnei Yisrael being sent into galus; his return or “homecoming” symbolizes our national geulah. Having each had our turn to experience the bitterness of galus, may we experience personal and communal geulah b’karov.

Daniel Coleman, MBA, is a sought-after career coach, passionate about helping people identify their values, find meaning, and achieve their career goals. At Yeshiva University, his primary focus is providing coaching, programming and resource development for the growing graduate student population. A former motorcyclist, he’s also a registered organ donor, left-handed and a patent holder.

By Daniel Coleman

 

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