Parashat Metzora details the affliction of Tzara’at at great length. Most famous as a punishment for the sin of speaking Lashon HaRa, slander, Tzara’at has many rules and details. The Parashah describes how a man who is believed to have the disease of Tzara’at approaches a Kohein, who then further determines the status of the affliction and makes the final assessment of the disease.
However, Tzara’at is not a normal physical sickness for which one must go to a doctor who diagnoses and treats the disease, as Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasizes in his commentary to the Torah. Rather, it is a spiritual illness that is given mainly as a punishment for slander. For a normal disease, one may be diagnosed even months after he first contracts it. The harm to the status of the body begins when the condition first occurs.
Conversely, the spiritual disease of Tzara’at has a completely different nature. As the Sifra, quoted by Rashi, points out, when the Torah states, “VeRa’ahu HaKohein VeTimei Oto,” “And the Kohein should look at it (Tzara’at) and make him impure” (VaYikra 13:3), the Kohein must orally declare that the afflicted person is impure; until that declaration, states the Mishnah (Negaim 3:1) the impure status does not take effect. Thus, the Kohein’s diagnosis is what truly causes the impurity. But would it not be more sensible that as soon as the Kohein proclaims its status as Tzara’at, it retroactively is considered as such for all the time before the Kohein’s ruling? Why can it only take effect as the result of his words?
Tzara’at and its treatment, which includes a period of quarantine, are meant to help the Metzorah do Teshuvah, or repent. Just as the Metzorah’s sin starts with speech, Lashon HaRa, so too the fixing process must start with speech: the Kohein’s declaration of impurity. This Meda KeNegged Meda emphasizes the importance of speech. The afflicted commences his path to Teshuvah by recognizing that only after the Kohein declares him impure does his disease truly affect him. He realizes that the Kohein’s declaration is the actual trigger of the Tzara’at, not the emergence of the disease itself. As a result, the Metzorah understands that the purpose of Tzara’at, more than just to punish, is to teach the power of speech.
To further imbue this idea into the heart of the afflicted, the Metzorah must undergo a quarantine process, in which he is separated from the rest of his camp, away from the people he harmed or committed sins against. This isolation serves as a period of reflection and of introspection, a time when the Metzorah should try to fix his flaws and improve his character. Without any real ability to speak to anyone, the Metzorah recognizes the significance of normal conversation and regulating speech. Hopefully, we, without the need for quarantine, will be able to recognize how our speech can have such a powerful effect upon us and others, and therefore employ it for the best of purposes.