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Under Observation

The Torah describes a skin condition called tzaraas and many associated laws of diagnosis, quarantine, and rehabilitation. The Torah treats it as a spiritual affliction as opposed to having any apparent medical significance, and as such, it falls under the holiness and purity rubric of the kohen.

The Torah is deliberate and precise that the condition can only be diagnosed or treated by a kohen, the religious leaders of an era before rabbis. If the patient were a learned expert and the kohen an illiterate imbecile, the patient’s status still turns on the kohen’s word alone and nothing else. 

If the kohen doesn’t need to know what he’s doing, why is the kohen a central figure at all?

Our sages understood that the condition called tzaraas was a symptom experienced by people who gossip and speak ill of others. In this light, it follows that the entire treatment process serves to rehabilitate the patient. 

By requiring someone else to make the diagnosis, the Torah acknowledges that it’s pretty easy to find faults in others and that it can be hard to see our own; being subjected to the judgment of another is precisely the experience you subject others to when you gossip about them. 

It is easy to figure out what others are doing that feels annoying, disappointing, or hurtful. It tends to be harder to figure out what you are doing that is annoying, disappointing, or hurtful. But gossiping about what others are doing gets you nowhere, and the Torah’s focus is on reorienting your interactions. 

The Tur notes that when the kohen makes his determination, the Torah describes how the kohen quarantines the condition away for a week; not the person – וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.

R’ Yitzhak Yehuda Trunk highlights how the kohen must look at the condition first but then also looks at the whole person – וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע / וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן – suggesting the need to see an issue for what it is critically but to consider the totality of a person in context; their qualities and redemptive features as well.

One of the laws of diagnosis is that if the condition persists but does not spread, the kohen must declare the illness healed – וְלֹא־פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר וְטִהֲרוֹ הַכֹּהֵן. When someone is in a stable medical condition, you might equally describe them as stable and therefore improving; or you might say that the lack of improvement is a sign of deterioration, that they’re not going to get better. Neither is wrong, but in terms of our orientation to the world, this law indicates a clear bias towards positivity.

R’ Zusha of Hanipol observes how severe the Torah is about gossip and slander; if a person has the propensity for gossip and slander within them, they don’t belong around others – כׇּל־יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ יִטְמָא טָמֵא הוּא בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ. 

The Rema notes that this could well be someone with tzaraas on their entire body doesn’t quarantine; their exterior physical condition matches their inner spiritual condition, and people will know to steer clear just by looking.

R’ Yisrael Salanter sharply notes how the punishment of isolation fits the crime. The sin isn’t just telling stories about others; it’s specifically about finding fault in others, a sin of misappropriating a skill you’re supposed to use on yourself. The Torah describes the skin healing from its nucleus but quite literally talks about inverting the eye – הָפַךְ הַנֶּגַע אֶת עֵינוֹ. By placing the laws of Tzaraas next to the laws of kosher, the Torah suggests that what comes out of our mouths is just as important as what goes in. If the condition and isolation are a result of judgmental eyes, then he has healed when his eyes are fixed firmly inward.

The Rambam says that when disaster strikes, it is forbidden to treat tragedy as a chance act of nature or randomness and that all things come from God and should be catalysts for teshuvah. Our response to suffering should be humility and introspection; don’t look elsewhere and blame it on those you don’t like. 

The Brisker Rov taught his students that the prophet Yonah fled from God, preferring to suffer rather than betray his people, but that when God sent a storm after him, he took ownership of the predicament around him – בשלי הסער הגדול הזה. In taking responsibility, you claim the power and ability to respond.

R’ Asher of Stolin suggests that the Torah’s approach to our personal shortcomings is to be upfront and forthcoming with them – נֶגַע צָרַעַת כִּי תִהְיֶה בְּאָדָם וְהוּבָא אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן. A problem shared is a problem halved; when people know you have an issue, they are in a position to help you in the way you need it. With self-compassion, you can be gentle and forgiving with yourself enough to display your mistakes and vulnerabilities and can be open with trusted people about the fact that you are flawed, like everyone else. The error of gossip is hiding your faults by exposing other people’s rather than doing anything. Share your flaws with trusted teachers and friends; own them before they own you. 

At every step, the Torah reminds us repeatedly that we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. Take ownership rather than point a finger.

Humans are highly subjective creatures, and we need to be mindful of how we use our ability to analyze critically. You need to take responsibility for your faults, not point fingers and place the blame elsewhere. Acknowledging imperfections opens the door to doing something about them. Success isn’t hiding your cracks or revealing others; it’s in honestly confronting yourself and bringing attention to the cracks within. 

When everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize everything springs from within, you will discover peace and joy.