Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Korach, Bamidbar 17:5. Good Tzara'as, Bad Tzara'as

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Synopsis:  Although Tzara'as is a spiritual disease, its symptoms symbolize brilliance and superiority.

Rashi in 17:5 says that one who disputes the status of the Kohanim deserves to be stricken with Tzara'as, just as Moshe Rabbeinu's hand was covered with Tzara'as when he doubted the faith of Klal Yisrael in Mitzrayim.

In Sanhedrin 101b, there is a very strange Gemara.
תנו רבנן שלשה ניבטו ולא ראו ואלו הן נבט ואחיתופל ואיצטגניני פרעה נבט ראה אש שיוצאת מאמתו הוא סבר איהו מליך ולא היא ירבעם הוא דנפק מיניה אחיתופל ראה צרעת שזרחה לו על אמתו הוא סבר איהו מלך ולא היא בת שבע בתו הוא דנפקא מינה שלמה איצטגניני פרעה דאמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא מאי דכתיב (במדבר כ) המה מי מריבה המה שראו איצטגניני פרעה וטעו ראו שמושיען של ישראל במים הוא לוקה אמר (שמות א) כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו והן לא ידעו שעל עסקי מי מריבה לוקה

The Gemara says that Achitophel, among others, saw a vision, and the vision had truth to it, but he misunderstood what he saw.  He saw, in a dream, that his male organ developed Tzara'as, and he understood this to mean that he would become king.  He was wrong, though.  Although it did certainly mean that royalty would come from him, it was actually only through his granddaughter, Bas Sheva, (Bas Sheva's father, Eliam, was Achitophel's son,) and his great-grandson, Shlomo, that he was connected to royalty.

This Gemara is very strange.  A normal man that dreamed that his genital organ became diseased with Tzara'as would not wake up convinced that he would be king.  He would wake up
in wide-eyed horror.  It's a nightmare, not a besura tova.  But Achitophel was right!  It was a besura tova!  The dream truly meant that royalty was destined for him, though only through his grandchildren.  What on earth does Tzara'as have to do with gaining royalty?  I saw pshatim in this Gemara, and I'm not bowled over by any of them.  And I'm not interested in Freud's analysis of opposites in his Interpretation of Dreams, and neither were Ravina or Rav Ashi, and neither was Achitophel, thank you.

I believe that our error stems from the assumption that Tzaraas is a stigma, a mark of disgrace and disease.  It may be, however, that Tzaraas, being a bright white mark, is actually a sign of eminence, of superiority.  The word for the brightest of the marks is "Ahz ka'sheleg," a shocking white.  The word "ahz" means brazen; but that's only when applied to a human being.  But when applied to Hashem, it is a praise: Az venora.  A ba'al lashon hara has a superiority complex: he's convinced that only he matters, and that nobody else matters, and he maligns others in order to support his delusion- "I'm better than you because you're worse than me."  The fact that Tzaraas results in expulsion and isolation and tuma is only true where it signifies that the person claimed to be a great man, but he actually is not.  The mark of Tzaraas would then mean that he wrongfully tried to wear the crown of greatness when in fact he is the opposite, that he thinks that he is a great philanthropist but in fact is a stingy and hateful person, or that he's convinced that he is more important than anyone else, while in fact he is no better than others.  In other words, Tzara'as is a gruesome irony: it is an ironic symbol of his delusion.  In the ancient world, it was common to disgrace a condemned political prisoner by placing a symbol of what he attempted to achieve on him- for example, a crude crown.  Tzara'as is a disease and a stigma, but only because it occurs to highlight the disgraceful incongruity of the person's delusional self-image.

If, however, the mark appears on a person who is truly a good and great man, a man who is not a baal lashon hara or stinginess, then on the contrary, it might be a symbol of royalty.  

Let's put it slightly differently: There are two dinim in Tzara'as.  There's the symptom and the disease, the siman and the siba.  The underlying disease is horrible, but the symptom of the disease, the bright white mark, is not.  It's like fever.  Fever itself, unless its above 105 F/40.5 C when it cooks your brains, is not necessarily a bad thing.  The problem is only when the fever indicates that some internal process, an infection or a reaction, is ravaging the body.  While Tzara'as is a disease, that's only in the actual experience of Tzara'as.  But in a dream, the primary symbolism of Tzara'as is a mark of superiority, not an ironic mockery.  If you only see the siman, the symptom, it means something very different.

Achitophel, as we know, was a very great man.  He was among our greatest Talmidei Chachamim, and the Navi says that asking Achitophel for for advice was like asking Hashem Himself.  He believed, and he was correct in his belief, that the Tzaraas that he saw in his dream was a sign that he was destined for royalty.
Similarly, anyone that denies the high status granted to the Kohanim is claiming that he is equally entitled to that high status, that he is as good as they are, as Korach did.  Such a person is marked with Tzara'as- the metaphysical disease that manifests with the appearance of the bright white badge of superiority.

Chaim B. points out that this approach helps us to understand Chazal's statement in Yevamos 47b "קשים גרים לישראל כספחת" converts are as hard for Klal Yisrael as Sapachas, a form of Tzara'as.  The rishonim interpret this statement in diametrically different ways.  On the basis of the Gemara in Sanhedrin 102b, and according to our approach, a sapachas indeed is something that can be interpreted in diametrically different ways; either that some geirim bring cultural traits from before their Geirus, which is bad, or that they outshine us in their brave dedication to the Torah, and shame us by comparison.  This is a perfect analogy to our interpretation of the mark of Tzara'as.



  1. Lol @ The Scream :)

    See R' Hartman's take on this

    What did you make of the Gorel Hagra? With your permission perhaps we could write up a collaborative effort on the sugya.

  2. R' Hartmann's take is very nice. Yasher Koach. It's pretty close to the Kli Yakar.

  3. Reminds me of the different shitos regarding 'kashim gerim l'yisrael l'sapachas'. Most learn it is l'griyusa, but some learn that opposite, that the geirim are outstanding in their observance which casts the rest of us in a bad light.