Parashat Tazria-Metzora / Suffering as a Rhetorical Device

Are the various types of leprosy described in the Torah intended only for the nations of the world, that is, for those who are not the readers of the Torah?

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This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), deals with real life phenomena: different types of tzara’at (leprosy), se’ot (lit., risings; i.e., tumors) and sapahot (scabs), and the precise laws pertaining to what to do when they appear, when they disappear, when they reappear, and the like. Whereas the Torah focuses on the legal implications arising from contracting leprosy, the following midrash is concerned with its emotional impact.

According to a verse in Proverbs, “Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes [or, blows] for the back of fools” (Proverbs 19:29), in contrast to the righteous, who suffer neither judgments nor physical blows. The midrash interprets this verse in a straightforward manner – “Judgments are intended for scorners and sinners” – and explains: “In this world, a person who rides a donkey sometimes beats it when the donkey misbehaves and sometimes beats it even when the donkey does not misbehave. However, this verse tells us that judgments are reserved solely for the scorners” (Vayikra Rabbah 15:4).

The midrash adds, however, that in this world, blows and various ills befall people in a manner that is not completely coherent: Sometimes they befall people with total justification; sometimes they do not. The seeming injustice of this state of affairs is emphasized by the above example, in which the blows are delivered by a human being to an animal. Since readers of this midrash know that they themselves sometimes beat their animals even when the blows are unjustified, the contrast between what is customary in this world and the ideal description in Proverbs is reinforced. Contrary to the way of the world, the passage in Proverbs states that judgments are meted out only to scorners.

The midrash then proceeds to the second half of this verse. “Rabbi Avin says: The word mahalumot [blows] can be divided into two words: maka [having dealt a blow] and lamut [to die], that is, dealt a lethal blow.” In other words, leprosy is akin to death. Following the suggestion of one commentator, known by the title Yefei To’ar, I'd suggest that Rabbi Avin actually divides the word mahalumot into maka (dealt a blow) la’umot (lit., to the nations, that is, to the nations of the world).

Regarding this interpretation, the midrash offers the following parable, “A woman entered the king’s palace. On seeing leather straps hanging there, she became fearful. The king told her: These straps are for the male and female slaves, not for you. You have nothing to worry about; you will always have enough food and drink and your life will always be happy.

“Similarly, when the Children of Israel heard the passages about the various types of leprosy, they became fearful. Moses told them: Don’t be frightened. This affliction is for the nations of the world. You have nothing to worry about; you will always have enough food and drink and your life will always be happy. It is written: ‘When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot’ [Lev. 13:2]; it is not written ‘When one of you shall have in the skin of your flesh.’” (Vaykira Rabbah, 15:4).

The woman in the parable symbolizes Israel. Just as the leather straps are intended for the king’s slaves, the affliction of leprosy is intended not for Israel but for the other nations of the world. The palace symbolizes the Torah, and the midrash is therefore concerned with the rhetorical power of the depictions of the different types of leprosy.

Whereas the Torah gives meaning to the various kinds of skin ailments described in this week’s portion, and assigns them religious significance and a practical context, the midrash focuses on the Torah text itself – or, rather, on its rhetorical implications. The descriptions are frightening, it tells us, but they are not intended for Israel; they are aimed at the nations of the world.

This interpretation is puzzling. Are the various types of leprosy described in the Torah really intended only for the nations of the world – that is, for those who are not the readers of the Torah?

The meaning of the above parable becomes clearer when one looks at a parallel passage in Eicha Rabbah: “Rabbi Pinchas, citing Rabbi Hoshaya, says: Why was suffering created? So that it will hang on a peg. It has a function, as it is written, ‘He will punish thine iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will uncover thy sins’ [Lamentations 4:22], and the sins of others like her. This is a fulfillment of what is promised in the Torah: ‘And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness; and he will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee (but will lay them upon all them that hate thee)’” (Deuteronomy 7:15).

Rabbi Hoshaya’s answer fits the classical rabbinical pattern of punishment and reward; in that pattern, God rewards those who are faithful to him and punishes those who are not. The question is not why the righteous seemingly suffer, but rather, what is the purpose of suffering in this world? According to Rabbi Hoshaya, suffering hangs on a peg and awaits those who must be punished. In the midrash, God’s punishment is intended for Israel’s enemies.

The statement “Why was suffering created? So that it will hang on a peg” occurs additional times in Eicha Rabbah and in other texts. According to scholar Saul Lieberman, it is also the background to the parable in Vaykira Rabbah. The woman sees the leather straps hanging in the palace, which are like suffering that hangs on a peg. The idea that the affliction of leprosy is only for Israel’s enemies is a fantasy, and must be read as a direct continuation of the first part of the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah. Similarly, the parable of the woman in the palace is a fantasy for those who seem to be suffering for no just cause.

The question “Why was suffering created?” is a difficult one. Why, the midrash asks, must we read about the various forms of suffering depicted in the Torah? The sages’ consolation, which is a form of fantasy, is based on the above verse in Proverbs, which promises that, in the future, there will be no cases of seemingly unjustified suffering.

The king in the parable consoles the woman. The leather straps are not intended for her but for her enemies. The woman, who has already experienced suffering in her life, has only one source of consolation: According to the Torah, the suffering it depicts is intended for her enemies – that is, for Israel’s enemies. The king’s promise will be fulfilled at some point in the future because it is written, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot”; it is not written “When one of you shall have in the skin of your flesh.”