Looking Beneath the Surface by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar


The Torah’s opening verse to the section that details the intricate and complex laws of Tzara’at contains an intriguing reference to man. It refers to an individual afflicted with Tzara’at not by the standard designation of “Ish” or “Ishah,” but with the term “Adam”, stating, “Adam Ki Yihyeh VeOr Besaro Se’eit O Sapachat O Vaheret,” “When an Adam has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration” (VaYikra 13:2). The usage of the appellation Adam in this specific context must communicate an appropriate message regarding an individual’s experience of Tzara’at.

The term Adam, an abbreviated form of the word ‘Adamah,’ earth, connotes man’s humble origin and sobering point of return. In God’s punishment of Adam, He reminds Adam that he will work tirelessly to produce means of survival, “Ad Shuvechah El HaAdamah Ki Mimenah Lukachtah,” “Until you return to the Adamah from which you were taken” (BeReishit 3:19). The name Adam issues a reminder to man of his human failings and his own mortality. It reflects the degradation of man.

The Gemara (Sotah 5a) contrasts the usage of the term Adam in this opening verse with the term Basar, used in a later verse in Parashat Tazria describing the affliction of Shechin, an inflammation (VaYikra 13:18). The latter verse concludes by describing the healing of the inflammation, whereas no parallel positive outcome can be discerned in the opening verse of the section. The Gemara aligns the difference in outcome with the dual description of man. Basar, flesh, is soft and pliable, and it is symbolic of the positive character traits of humility, flexibility, and tenderness. Adamah, earth, on the other hand, is hard, rigid, and unbending. Its characterization of man highlights human arrogance, pride, and brazen sense of independence.

The term Adam, however, also underscores the opposite nature of man. The Netziv (VaYikra 13:2) cites the perspective of the Zohar that the name Adam reflects the importance of man. It highlights the spiritual and intellectual ascendancy of man, the majestic quality of human living, surpassing all other living creatures. God proclaims at the dawn of creation, “Na’aseh Adam BeTzalmeinu KiDmuteinu,” “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness” (BeReishit 1:26). In that context, the Netziv explains that the word Adam is a shortened form of the word ‘Adameh,’ ‘I am comparable to.’ Man is created in the image of God, and he radiates with intelligence, creativity, and mastery.

The term Adam is, thus, carefully chosen in the context of Parashat Tazria as it introduces the affliction of Tzara’at. An individual who suffers from Tzara’at endures more than a physical malady. Rav Yochanan teaches that Tzara’at develops as a result of an array of religious and human failings (Erchin 16a) – “because of seven things leprous affections are incurred: on account of slander, the shedding of blood, expressing a false oath, illicit relations, arrogance, theft, and stinginess.” Tzara’at reflects the Adam of Adamah, the degradation of man to the depths of arrogance, deception, self-centeredness, and manipulation. In short, its appearance indicates the complete erasure of human dignity. Ramban (VaYikra 13:47) explains that Tzara’at is a symptom, a physical manifestation of God turning aside from a person, since “When Israel is wholly devoted to God, His spirit is upon them always,” a state that prevents any development of ill appearance.

At the same time, the usage of Adam to introduce the intricacies of Tzara’at issues a powerful message of strength and encouragement to man that the affection lies on “the skin of his body” alone. Lest he sulk in despair or writhe in self hatred due to his failings, the Torah reminds him that he is an Adam, one who is Adameh to his divine creator. At his core, he is a majestic being with an unparalleled spiritual aptitude. He might have been severely misled in his actions, but his essential core has not rotted. The failings are on the surface, on “the skin of his body.” Grave mistakes might have been committed, yet his life is still redeemable. He must not forfeit; rather, he must continuously aspire toward the divine image in which he was created.

This article draws on themes found in “Depths of Simplicity” (by Rav Zvi Dov Kanotopsky) and “Majesty and Humility” (from Darosh Darash Yosef of Rav Soloveitchik).

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