Parashat Tzaria: Sara’at and Confronting Hardship
Parashiyot Tazria and Mesora deal mainly with the laws of Sara’at – a skin disorder resembling leprosy that would befall people on account of certain sins. The Torah outlines the various guidelines by which it is determined when a person indeed has Sara’at, the restrictions that apply if he does, and the process entailed in regaining one’s status of Tahara (purity) after recovering from Sara’at.
One of the interesting laws of Sara’at is the prohibition against surgically removing the infected skin. A person with Sara’at may want to spare himself the long, difficult process that Sara’at imposes, and simply tear off the discolored skin. The Torah strictly forbids such an act, requiring instead that one follow all the procedures entailed in the process of the Sara’at.
The Sefer Ha’hinuch (anonymous work commonly attributed to Rav Aharon Ha’levi, Spain, 1235-1303) explains that this law reflects the Torah’s general approach to suffering and hardship. When a person is stricken with some malady, or faces some difficult situation, his response must not be to simply cure the illness or resolve the problem. His main response must be to undergo an internal process of change and repentance. Our Sages taught that hardship must trigger introspection. We cannot just "remove" the crisis and then live as if it never happened. We must respond with a process of looking into ourselves and trying to improve.
The Gemara tells the story of Rav Huna, whose cellar was filled with barrels of wine, which one day suddenly turned to vinegar. Distraught, he approached his colleagues to seek their assistance. They urged him to think of something which he might have done wrong to cause this misfortune, and it was discovered that he employed a certain sharecropper whom he had not paid. Rav Huna paid the worker, and suddenly the vinegar turned back into wine. According to a different version of the story, the Gemara relates, the price of vinegar drastically rose, and Rav Huna earned a large profit.
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (5) speaks at length about the topic of "Yisurin" – suffering and hardship. It teaches us that hardships atone for sin in a manner resembling bankruptcy protection. Each sin we commit should, in truth, be met with severe punishments, but Hashem, in His great mercy and kindness, gives us a "reduction." We can "pay" our "dues" with just pennies on the dollar – with a flat tire, a lost client, a broken window, or an insult from a friend. These Yisurin seem harsh or even devastating when they occur, but in the grand scheme of things, they are an expression of Hashem’s great compassion, as He lets us off easy by allowing us to earn atonement through these kinds of losses and inconveniences.
This is one of the lessons of Sara’at. We hope and pray to never suffer any sort of affliction, but when we are, Heaven forbid, stricken by "Sara’at," by any form of hardship, let us respond the right way, by taking a good look into ourselves and finding mistakes that need to be corrected and habits that need to be changed.