Torah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Gospel: Luke 2:22-35; Mark 1:35-45
As the average Bible-reader dutifully slogs through the laws concerning biblical leprosy, he might wonder what this has to do with him, and why the Torah spends so much time on the details of this disease. Unless you are a son of Aaron serving in the Levitical priesthood, the laws of diagnosing and purifying lepers don’t have much application. The average person will never be responsible for distinguishing between one type of rash and another for purposes of declaring someone ritually unfit.
Nevertheless, the laws of biblical leprosy have spiritual applications. Traditionally, the rabbis have used these laws to teach about the grievous sin of evil speech (lashon hara, לשון הרע).
What is it that makes a leper so unique that the Torah says [in Leviticus 13:46], “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp”? His gossiping separated a husband from his wife and a man from his neighbor. Therefore said the Torah said, “He shall live alone.” (b.Arachin 16b)
The association between evil speech and leprosy is derived from the story of Miriam’s leprosy (Numbers 12). Miriam was punished with leprosy for grumbling against her brother Moses. The sages inferred from this that biblical leprosy was a punishment for the sin of an evil tongue. Given that piece of information, the laws of the leper (metzora) became fertile ground for homiletic teachings about the sin of evil speech. The rabbis gave moral interpretations for the Torah’s regulations for assessing leprosy and the laws for effecting purification.
For example, the sages taught that the word metzora (leper) is derived from a combination of the Hebrew words motzi (מוציא), which means “wellspring” or “source,” and the Hebrew word ra (רע), which means “evil.” Put them together and it spells the word “leper” (metzora, מצורע)— sort of. It’s not a real etymology. The word metzora actually comes from the Hebrew word for leprosy (tzara’at, צרעת). The “wellspring of evil” explanation is meant as a illustrative reminder.
What is the source from which evil springs? It is the tongue! Therefore, one who speaks evil is a spiritual metzora. James the brother of Yeshua probably knew this interpretation. He alludes to it in his epistle where he compares the tongue to a wellspring:
From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? (James 3:10-11)