The Torah continues in this week’s portion of Metzora with its extensive treatise upon the detection and treatment of the Tzaraas. The main transgression of the Metzora (the one inflicted with the Tzaraas) is of slander, and thus the Torah mandates a period of societal isolation as penitence for his social transgression. As is fitting with the Torah’s system of crime and punishment, which generally does not advocate prolonged incarceration, the forced isolation of the Metzora is temporary, enforced only until the disappearance of the Tzaraas. No doctor nor any prophet could deem the Metzora fit to return to the Israelite camp, as only priests descended from Aaron were ever ordained to grant clearance to the afflicted.
We live in an era when the majority of doctors no longer perform house calls, and most practices are not entirely independent. The prevailing economics of health care tends to influence physicians to work in groups or as hospital employees, and so most medical consultations are now performed in the neutral abode of the clinic rather than in a lodging exclusively owned by either the patient or the doctor. With regards to treating the Tzaaras, the Torah prescribes that the Kohein should “go forth to the outside of the camp” (Vayikra 14:3)—beyond the Jewish encampment—to meet the Metzora, who from his bivouac “shall be brought to the Kohein” (Ibid 14:2). Thus the ancient examination of the Metzora, like the typical medical consultation of today, took place at a neutral point of meeting.
Two weeks ago, in Parashas Parah, we read of the purification process for the individual who becomes contaminated by a corpse. There are three essential elements of the purification process: the ashes of the Red Heifer, the immersion water, and time. On the third and seventh days after contamination, the Kohein sprinkles the ashes of the Red Heifer upon his patient. Also on the seventh day, the impure one immerses himself in a spiritual bath. If these steps are properly followed, the contaminated individual then regains his former status at the conclusion of the seventh day. It is evident that absent the assistance of a Kohein, the individual who becomes impure remains indefinitely tainted. No matter how much he may personally desire to return to the fold of the Jewish people, he cannot independently regain his purity. So too, the Metzora is unable to recuperate without external aid. It is through the confluence of characters, a meeting between the spiritual aspirant and the priestly master, by which the Torah restores dignity to the fallen.
My teacher Rav Moshe Soloveichik, quoting his uncle Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, explained to me that just as purity is only attained after someone receives the aid of a Kohein, a repentant person must likewise change himself and receive aid from others in order to achieve and maintain a truly righteous dimension. The meeting between the Metzora and the Kohein takes place on neutral grounds, as there is an equilibrium of responsibility between the man of G-d and the penitent in the determination of fate. The Metzora is a spiritual aspirant, as perhaps all of us are as well, and so the complexity and significance of his relationship with the Kohein is quite relevant in our days. We cannot expect to achieve fantastic heights solely by the might of personal wit or individual yearning; nor can we possibly think that the presence of a ‘holy man’ is a guarantor of portions in the World to Come. In our lives, we are required to both spiritually toil and seek out moral guidance, so that in the quest for sanctity, the determination and sophistication of the individual is steadied by the direction of mentors and role models from either the past or the present.