The portion of Sefer VaYikra describing the Tzara’at affliction is a most troubling section of the Torah. Virtually all Parshanim, as well as the Talmudic literature, point to the spiritual nature of this disease and its concomitant transgressions, most notably Lashon HaRa. Nonetheless, the Parashah remains hard to understand; this difficulty has the potential to paralyze, undermine, or debilitate its educational effect. Tzara’at is not merely a theoretical phenomenon. We encounter this affliction in Sefer Melachim Bet (Chapter 5). The Navi relates the story of Na’aman, a general of Aram who had been afflicted with Tzara’at for an unidentified reason, although some commentators attribute it to his taking captive a young Jewish girl. The girl urged Naaman to seek the advice of Elisha the prophet, and after some degree of coaxing in response to Na’aman’s skepticism, his servants persuaded Na’aman to immerse in the Jordan River at Elisha’s direction. Na’aman emerged from the river to find that his skin had returned to the soft texture of a young boy.
It is in this context that the Parshanim note an interesting word which is used to describe the transition from affliction to healing and from ritual impurity to purity. The Jewish maidservant states, “VaTomer El Gevirta, Achalei Adoni Lifnei HaNavi Asher BeShomeron, Az Ye'esof Oto MiTzarato,” “And she said to her mistress, ‘Let my master beseech the prophet of Israel in Shomron, and then he will gather him in from his Tzara’at’” (Melachim Bet 5:3). The root A.S.F., meaning “to gather,” is used again in Pasuk Vav: “Va’Asafto MiTzarato,” in Pasuk Zayin: “Le’Esof Ish MiTzara’ato,” and in Pasuk Yud Aleph: “Ve’Asaf HaMetzora.” Most of the commentators assume that this term is a description of the return of the Metzora from his banishment to the city (or camp, as the case may be). He will be gathered unto his people (not to be confused with the selfsame root used to describe death, where one is also gathered unto his people). As Radak states: "VeNikreit Refu’at HaTzara’at Asifa Mipnei SheHaMetzora Yeisheiv Badad UVeHeirafo Yei’Aseif Bein Bnei Adam,” "The curing of Tzara’at is called Asifa, because the Metzora sits alone, and when he is healed he is gathered between people” (Melachim Bet 5:3 Radak s.v. Ye’esof Oto MiTzarato). This is certainly a tenable explanation, as we find the same term used in the context of Miriam’s Tzara’at affliction, as recorded in Sefer Bamidbar. It is there that G-d issues the command: “Tisageir Shivat Yamim MiChutz LaMachaneh Ve’Achar Tei’asef,” “She shall be quarantined for seven days outside of the camp, and afterwards she shall be gathered in” (BeMidbar 12:14). Indeed, the next Pasuk states, “VeHa’am Lo Nasa Ad Hei’aseif Miriam,” “And the people did not travel until Miriam was gathered in” (ibid. 15).
However, Ralbag, in his commentary to Sefer Melachim, offers a most fascinating and innovative interpretation of the usage of the root A.S.F. in the context of the curing of the Tzara’at. He writes, “VeNikra HaRefu’a MeiHaTzara’at Asifa Ki HaTzara’at Ta’aseh MeHa’Echad Rabim Ki MiPnei Tigboret HaChom Ha’Aposhi YeChaleish Me’od HaChom HaTivi HaKosheir Eivarei HaBa’alei Chayim UMeisim Otam Echad,” “And the process of healing from Tzara’at is called ‘Asifa’, because the Tzara’at makes one into many, as the strengthening of the heat of the disease causes the weakening of the natural heat which binds the limbs of living things and makes them one” (Melachim Bet 5:6 Ralbag s.v. Ve’Asafto MiTzarato). Tzara’at transforms the body’s one unit into many parts. The breakdown of the skin essentially separates the integumentary system (and perhaps internal systems as well) into separate unconnected parts-- dead tissue serves as this disuniting barrier. This is why he claims that the Metzora will occasionally lose a limb. It is for this reason the messenger that Elisha sent to Na’aman says to him, “VeYashov Besarcha Lecha UTithar,” “And your flesh will return to you and you will become pure,” as the Ralbag explains, “Ki HaMetzora Ein Besaro Lo Ki Ein Bo HaDavar SheKosheir Besaro Vo,” “As the Metzora’s flesh is not his, as he lacks the thing which ties his flesh to him” (ibid.). The cure of the Metzora, therefore, invariably involves the merging of the skin and perhaps some of the internal systems of the body into one unit. If Tzara’at makes “MeiHa’Echad Rabim,” “From one, many,” then the Tikkun is to make “MeiHaRabim Echad,” “From many, one.”
The Middah KeNeged Middah becomes abundantly evident according to Ralbag’s innovation. We typically point to the Metzora’s banishment from the camp as the manifestation of measure for measure. As Rashi (Vayikra 13:46 s.v. Badad Yeisheiv) quotes from the Midrash, “Ma Nishtanah Mishe’ar Temei’im Leisheiv Badad Ho’il Vehu Hivdil BeLashon HaRa Bein Ish Le’Ishto Uvein Ish LeRei’eihu Af Hu Yibadeil,” “Why is the Metzora treated differently than all other individuals who have contracted ritual impurity? Since he, through his slander, caused a separation between husband and wife or between a person and his or her neighbor, he too shall be separated.” This is a most befitting punishment. However, the penalty of banishment doesn’t address the more immediate and perhaps more physically debilitating affliction of the skin. Where is the measure for measure in skin discoloration and skin death?
The skin binds the body into one unit. It makes a person whole. It makes him feel that all of his limbs form one unit of purpose. It protects the body and allows for homeostasis, or temperature regulation. The breakdown of the skin makes a person more vulnerable to the environment, unable to regulate his own self-esteem and self-worth, and exposes him to pathogens. A breakdown of the skin is a breakdown of the self. “VeYashov Besarcha Lecha,” “And your flesh will return to you” (Melachim Bet 5:10): your self will return to you when you have internalized that you have taken the self from your fellow human being with your disparaging, vicious remarks. This is truly a suitable punishment, measure for measure. The proper treatment of another human being is making them feel whole and complete, where all the limbs are focused together on a mission, thus making them into a Basar Echad.
If this is true of our daily interpersonal relationships with our colleagues, how much more so with our spouses! “VeHayu LeVasar Echad,” “And they shall be one flesh” (BeReishit 2:24), the Torah tells us. Our geniality, our benevolence, our loving disposition when interacting with our friends should reach another dimension of Basar Echad with our speech and overall conduct with our spouses. VeHayu LeVasar Echad demands that more than any other responsibility and obligation, it is a spouse’s duty to ensure that each remains Basar Echad: one stable, durable, balanced human being, capable of navigating the caustic world of the spoken word.