Towards the end of the Torah section Tazriah, after a series of instructions concerning the contraction of tzara’at (loosely translated as leprosy), we learn of a case in which someone comes to the kohen (priest) with a nega (affliction of tzara’at) comprising a white patch of skin. The kohen is not certain about the status of the nega and places the individual into isolation. A week later, we are told (Vayikra 13:13), “The priest shall look, and behold! The affliction has covered his entire flesh, then he shall declare the affliction to be pure; having turned completely white, it is pure.”
In his Torat Moshe, the 19th century Torah giant R. Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer, notes the paradox of this scenario. While the affliction was relatively localized, the individual’s status was uncertain. However, after spreading throughout the person’s body, not leaving one millimeter uncovered with this affliction, then the person is declared pure – free to go!
The Chatam Sofer in explaining the aforementioned paradox, notes another apparent paradox. On the face of it, the one afflicted appears to suffer from a physical disease. Under normal circumstances, Jewish law prescribes other Jews to visit an ill individual. However, in our case, not only do we not advise other Jews to visit him, this person is banished from society – “Isolated he shall sit, outside the camp” (Vayikra 13:46).
In explanation, we must understand that this person afflicted with tzara’at, as mentioned in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a), is guilty of behavior against society. His affliction is a result of his engaging in lashon ha’ra (slander or gossip), whereby he causes strife among other members of society. The Torah, therefore, mandates that we separate ourselves from this individual. Thereby, we can protect ourselves from his behavior and not learn from his practices.
The worst type of individual, the Chatam Sofer points out, is one who is two-faced. It is especially difficult to be careful of a person who acts in one manner outwardly but secretly in his heart has sinister intentions. We must make special efforts to distance unsuspecting individuals from such a person. On the other hand, when an individual clearly shows his true colors and his evil intentions are clear to all, he is not as dangerous. His wickedness is obvious to all and it is easier for others to realize the need to protect themselves from him.
Similarly, the Chatam Sofer says with regards to one whose body is partially afflicted by tzara’at, he gives the appearance of being good and as a result G-d has afflicted him with this illness to warn us of his true nature and to warn us to stay away from him. On the other hand, if someone is blemished from the top of his head to his little toe – clearly showing one’s true colors fully in the open – no mistake can be made about this person. Such a person, therefore, does not require such an intense punishment. The Torah does not require us to isolate him from the rest of society.