How lovely would it be if we merited to receive a sign directly from Hashem when we aren’t living according to truth? Parshat Tzaria and Parshat Metzora, which are read as a double parsha this Shabbat, discuss just that. The affliction of Tzaraat is often translated as leprosy, although this is incorrect; the Rambam concludes that tzaraat does not resemble any known disease.1 Furthermore, this affliction also appears on inanimate objects: houses and garments.
What is tzaraat? It is a sign of warning given after committing one of the following 11 transgressions:2
- Cursing Hashem’s name
- Sexual impropriety
- Bearing false witness
- Perverting justice
- Swearing falsely
- Entering property that is not yours
- Thinking false thoughts
- Instigating quarrels among brothers
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Baal HaTanya) writes that tzaraat only afflicts righteous and exalted individuals.3 Hashem generally does not worry about sending signs to the wicked. One might ask, how is it possible that righteous individuals could commit any of the above transgressions? Rav Steinsaltz explains that the above list is not referring to blatant, overt transgressions. Rather, it refers to those subtle moral lines that can at times become blurry and of which, every great person must walk. Especially as people grow in power and influence, so too does the danger that they might lose perspective and fall into rationalization and justification. Thus, it is to these people that Hashem sends the sign of tzaraat.
When the mark of tzaraat appears, if it spreads (as in the case with skin or garments) or if it remains (as in the case of a house), the person or object is considered to be a tamai (ritually impure). Tuma, as described by Rav Steinsaltz, describes a state of lost potential.4 Death is the ultimate tuma because it is the lost potential of life. Tzaraas shows someone that they are missing their mark, failing to live up to the level of which they are capable. When the mark appears, the person is supposed to look internally to understand how to return to a state of tahor (balanced, alive, connected, pure). If they don’t do t'shuvah, then they continue to live in a state akin to death. Their actions isolate them from other people and their stubbornness, fear, and egos keep them in a destructive loop of rationalization.
There might not be the sign of tzaraat anymore, but we certainly all still receive signs. These signs come in the form of anxiety, fear, tension, guilt, and discomfort. From a psychological perspective, these signs come to tell us when we are in danger, or when something is wrong. These feelings might be uncomfortable, but ultimately, they are our allies. They are there to tell us something and we are supposed to react to them. When a deer is being hunted, fear triggers an enormous release of adrenalin and it begins to run. Assuming it escapes the predator, it relaxes and releases the tension, often through shaking or tremors.
Today many people live in states of chronic stress, chronic anxiety. Fear feelings are powerful and important. But continuous fear is deadly. It poisons our souls. It steals our life force, it turns us into the walking dead, like those with tzaaras. “The wicked in their lifetime are called dead.”5 We stay trapped in the steel cage of others’ expectations, behind the iron bars of our own self-limiting beliefs. We don’t enact changes because we don’t think we’re allowed, deserving, or capable. We simply accept being half-dead as the status quo. We ignore the signs telling us something is wrong and continue to live as circles trying to fit into square holes. We stay in a state of tuma, of lost potential, of not-living.
What are we supposed to do? We are supposed to look at our signs and not run from them. We are supposed to look at our fear and anxiety and understand it, not simply suppress it. Generally, these signs tell us that we are living our lives incompatibly with our deepest, Gd-given truth, and thus, not fulfilling the purpose Hashem has for us. They also tell us that we are trying to receive fulfillment, security, validation, or meaning from the wrong places. Even if we recognize and understand our deepest truth, we might still lack the emunah and bitachon to take that often terrifying leap of faith. (On a side note, I’m not making a statement here of the degree to which psychological challenges are socially or biologically in origin. Ultimately, everything, even biology, is from Hashem, but I am in no way minimizing the fact that some people’s mental health challenges are greater than others).
So often, we trap ourselves in our fear with our fear. It’s a strange and wild phenomenon. We work a job we hate, ignoring the call of our soul because we fear trusting our inner voice. Further, we fear letting go of our fears because, subconsciously (or consciously), we believe they are serving us. We believe they are keeping us safe, rich, powerful. We are afraid to let go of fear. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To escape the loop, we must strengthen our emunah and bitachon. We must remind ourselves that no leaf in this world blows without Hashem willing it so. We must understand that each of us is a unique creation, with unique capabilities and challenges, put on this earth to serve a unique purpose. We can only fulfill that purpose by listening and trusting our inner voice, our inner will, our passions and calling. We must understand that Hashem protects and satisfies those who put their faith in Him, who put their faith in Truth, who allow themselves to sing the song of their souls. Ultimately, we must let go of our fears, anxiety, and stress. We must let go of all that doesn’t serve us, all that holds us back from living our most authentic, passionate lives. “Do not put your trust in noble men, in man who has no power of deliverance.”6 “Hashem is close to all those who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in Truth.”7
How do we respond to these signs in a healthy way? How do we live without fear, stress, and anxiety? How do we go back to a state of tahor (life/purity/connection)? We must let go of our desire for external outcomes. We must let go of our need for things to be a certain way, of our expectations for other people’s actions. We must realize that nothing physical in this world will satisfy our deep desire for purpose and meaning, for love and connection. We must seek and create quiet, alone spaces for ourdselves. We must cultivate and live a rich and balanced inner life. We must trust our intuition, allowing our bodies to truly relax and heal in ways that only they can guide. When we find peace and wholeness within ourselves, we stop needing anything from the world. When we don’t need anything from the world, it can take nothing from us. When we build temples within ourselves, we become the freest people in the world for we have cultivated that which no one can take. We are not afraid, stressed, or anxious anymore because we’ve let go of all that we have to fear. “Hashem is with me, I will not fear, what can man do to me?”8
When we hold back our light, we rob the world and people of the chance to receive it. We prevent ourselves from performing the tikkun (fix) that we’re supposed to make in the world. When we decide to suppress some aspect of ourselves because we are afraid of judgment or failure, we fundamentally deny the existence and power of Hashem. When we do not listen to the signs, we walk around like zombies, walking because someone told us we needed to walk, speaking because we believe that’s what we’re meant to say, thinking what others told us we were permitted to think. This is not us. We are free men and women and each of us has a holy soul within us. We must welcome those signs that at times cut us and leave us bleeding for those signs show us those very places holding us back from our true potential. Those signs show us those places where we aren’t fully trusting Hashem. Those signs show us the place we contain Tuma – lost potential – within us. May we all merit to see our signs with wide eyes, to grasp holy courage to respond and make the necessary changes, and to build our bitachon and emunah so that we grow to trust Hashem’s vision for us in the world. His vision is simple: we are supposed to be ourselves and nothing less.
It is a well-known quote, but poignant nonetheless. As the great 18th-century Chasidic Rabbi, Rav Zusha of Hanipol said:9
“If they say to me in the World of Truth, Zusha, ‘why weren’t you like Moshe Rebbeinu?’ I won’t be afraid at all. Could I possibly imagine myself as Moshe Rebbeinu?
And if they say to me, ‘why weren’t you like the Tanna, the holy Rabbi Akiva?’ I won’t care at all. Who am I and who is Rabbi Akiva?
Of what am I afraid? When they say to me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha? Zusha you could have been, so why weren’t you?’”
- Maimonides: Commentary on the Mishna, Nega’im 12:5
- Tanhuma, Metzora, 10
- Rav Shneur Zalman: Likkutei Torah, Tazria 22b
- Rav Adin Steinsaltz: Talks on the Parsha
- Berakhot, 18b
- Tehillim: 146:3
- Tehillim: 145:18
- Tehillim: 118:6
- Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, Menorat haZahav