Jewish Journal

Knowing the Person

Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

Posted on Apr. 3, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Did you ever notice how we tend to make up our minds so quickly that we become closed to ideas that might change our opinion?

 Recently, I came across the following sign prominently displayed on an executive's desk that succinctly summarized it: "Don't confuse me with facts -- my mind is already made up."

If that is true about life in general, it is even truer about the way we judge people. We rarely give people much time before we decide what we think of them. It is this very point that Judaism teaches in a fascinating fashion in this week's Torah portion.

The primary focus of this week's portion is the discussion of tzara'at, afflictions or leprosy; a spiritual punishment that could affect a person's skin, clothing or even his house. For modern man, this concept seems to be both difficult and irrelevant. When was the last time we actually saw a person stricken with tzara'at? For the commentators, however, and especially the teachers of ethics and morality, tzara'at was not a physical disease; rather it was a physical manifestation of spiritual malaise. In exploring the ethical dimension, they found lessons that surely apply to human relations in our own impersonal age.

For example, our Jewish ethical teachers derived a profound lesson from one word in the Torah portion. The Torah legislates that a person who seemed to be stricken with tzara'at had to have a Kohen come and examine the afflicted area to decide if the eruption was a genuine case of tzara'at. If the eruption was genuine, then the person was considered defiled.

According to the 16th-century Italian commentator, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, the Kohen had this responsibility because the Kohanim, by definition, were the spiritual leaders and teachers of the people. Consequently, it was the Kohanim who needed to be sensitized in how to deal with this problem.

Just what sensitivity did the Kohanim need to have? The Torah provides us with some clues. The Kohen receives two specific instructions. In the first, it states, "And the Kohen would see the spot" (Leviticus 13:3). At first, the Kohen simply acts as a technician. He looks at the spot to discern what he is looking at. But then the wording in the verse changes just a little. Before he can declare clean or defiled, he has to take a second look. Suddenly, the wording in the verse shifts from "the Kohen would see the spot" to "and the Kohen shall see him and declare him defiled."

Why the change from "and he shall see the spot" to "and he shall see him?" The Talmud answers that the Kohen has to see more than just a skin ailment. We must not make quick judgments about any person, and certainly not judgments that might be detrimental to that person's well-being. First, we need to find out about the person's immediate needs.

The Talmud instructs us that we must start by investigating, by learning something about the person himself. Perhaps he is a groom in the midst of celebrating the seven joyous days following his nuptials, or perhaps he is busy preparing to commemorate an upcoming festival with his family. In such instances, declaring the person defiled might not just mar his joy, but undermine his personal well-being.

In other words, the Torah was more concerned with the mental health of the afflicted person than with the affliction itself. With that concern, the Torah thereby was teaching us a crucial lesson. None of us should make snap judgments about other people. No one should jump to hasty conclusions until we consider all the extenuating circumstances. In the final analysis, the lesson of tzara'at is simple: find out about the person; know the person; and you will care for the person.  

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

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