What Tazria and M’tzora Can Teach Us about Disease and Leadership

Apr 21, 2020 by

What Tazria and M’tzora Can Teach Us about Disease and Leadership

What is the real purpose of leadership? In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history, religious leadership was the kohanim, priests. What was the true purpose of the priests? According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community. Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community. Numerous midrashim from the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations. This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right. A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase. Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness. There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations. The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example. Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria and M’tzora: how to deal with a certain kind of disease. Tazria gives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת, tzaraat, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community. The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week. If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence. There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality. That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority. Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God. While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community. That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases. Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment—be it physical or spiritual. The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described. The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzaraat. A priest determines if the treatment needs only to be of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses. Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzaraat occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none, the house gets the disease. This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment. The very next midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbah lists ten sins that will bring on tzaraat. Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease. They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation. They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons. God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level. Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction. In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today: How are our leaders protecting exposure? Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life? Are leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes? Is their focus on their personal situation or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught? Finally, what are we as individuals doing to increase the Divine presence? Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others? Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g., all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions? All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less?


Rabbi W. Jack Romberg worked in business for eighteen years, then, at age 42 entered HUC-JIR. After ordination, he served for eighteen years as the rabbi for Temple Israel in Tallahassee, Florida, and upon retirement in June of 2019 received a key to the city from the mayor. As Rabbi Emeritus, he writes weekly Torah commentaries for the congregation.

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