By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld
We know that צרעת would first appear on a person’s house which he is attached to, to a certain extent, then it would affect a person’s garment which is more closely attached to him, and
When a home is afflicted with צרעת, the process is to lock up the house for 7 days. If this does not help the next step is to remove the affected stones and replace them with new stones. If the צרעת comes back, the Pasuk says that the entire house needs to be taken apart brick by brick and removed from the city. When clothing is afflicted with צרעת, the process is to quarantine the clothing for 7 days, and if the צרעת does not go away the garment needs to be burnt. In these first two manifestations of צרעת we see that is the צרעת does not go away the item needs to be burnt and destroyed.
Based on this pattern, if I had to guess what the halacha would be when a person’s צרעת doesn’t go away after he is quarantined for 7 days, knowing that צרעת on the body comes as the third and final manifestation of this affliction, I would have said that the person needs to be destroyed. He didn’t internalize the message when the צרעת was on his home and clothes, therefore it has personally affected him now, he should not get another chance, similar to how the house and clothing needed to be disposed of, he should need to be gotten rid of. To be burnt like the garment, or beheaded like the house was taken apart, and buried outside of the city.
Yet we see that this is not the case. He does need to leave the camp, but after 7 days and a dip in the מקוה and he needs to go through an intricate purification process but then he is considered pure and back to his original status. Why the double standard? If it possible to recover from צרעת why do his home and garment need to be destroyed? And if it is not possible to recover, how is the person able to recover?
I think the answer is that the Torah is highlighting for us the difference between people and everything else in this world. We are not simply sophisticated physical material; we are a blend of physical matter and spiritual energy. But our energy is infinite and therefore nothing can come in the way of us returning to our state of purity. No matter the sin or the affliction, we are not like the house and garment, we are in control of our bodies and we can live our lives in a way that allows for complete change and return to society.
I think this idea helps explain the מדרש which compares the word נגע used in our פרשה when describing צרעת and the words used when Hashem tells Moshe that He plans on bringing מכת בכורות. Hashem says עוד נגע אחד אביא על פרעה, I will bring one more affliction onto Pharaoh. The מדרש explains that the same word is used since Pharaoh received צרעת. But צרעת is a spiritual ailment, how would Pharaoh who was spiritually depraved get this affliction?
The answer is based on what we said at the beginning. One aspect of צרעת is that people are infinitely great and therefore can’t be written off the way inanimate objects could be. What Hashem was teaching us by entering Egypt Himself, as we say אני ולא שרף אני ולא מלאך, was that we are each infinitely valuable and can’t be compromised.
Plan A was for even Pharaoh and his nation to understand this, the מכות were plan B. Hashem tells Moshe וידעו מצרים כי אני י-ה-ו-ה. All Hashem wanted was for civilization to realize that He is in control of the world in an intimate way and wants a relationship with each of His children. The first request was for us to celebrate with God, ויחגו לי במדבר. Pharaoh scoffed at that since from a pagan perspective, gods were not meant to be celebrated, they were feared and revered. They cared nothing for those that served them. The concept that a God would busy Himself with people in this world was completely foreign to the Egyptians. Had they had an interest in this concept and come to learn it, first of all our entire world would be different since Egypt was the precursor to knowledge as we know it and if they had record of a Loving God in their texts, Greece, Rome, and the entire modern world would have evolved quite differently. But that also would have bypassed the need for the מכות. The מכות were only there to show Hashem’s command and control over nature, had the Egyptians seen that on their own, the מכות would not have been necessary. A positive outlook on Pharaoh’s end would have changed the course of history.
And this leads us to a broader theme that can apply to every situation that every person is in. there is a positive message for each person in every place that they are in. the מצורע can be sitting on the floor miles away from his house and removed from all people for 7 days and he can either wallow in self-pity that he was afflicted, that he has no house or clothes left, and that Hashem is making him suffer. Or he can choose to realize that Hashem wants a closer relationship with him, and therefore he has something to fix in his life, and Hashem tried to warn him by way of his house and clothes. And even within his affliction now is the message that he is special and far more valuable than objects that people own. He is a person that can’t become טמא to the point of no return. Even if he is declared ultimately טמא, there is a purification process and he will always be able to return back into Hashem’s nation.
Pharaoh could have understood that Moshe’s coming to him was an offer and an opportunity to better himself. Instead he viewed it as a challenge and a power struggle, and we all know how that ended for him.
The choice is ours, and although it is difficult and requires a serious negation of ego, it makes the space for Hashem to come into our lives in a very real way.