Tzara’at and the Contagious Smile
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
I didn’t actually give a sermon this week, but on Friday night, I spoke briefly about tzara’at, the mysterious skin-disease which is the major topic of this and last weeks’ parshiot.
Sources are divided as to whether tzara’at was a contagious form of leprosy or similar. Some, like Chizkuni, understood its symptoms to refer to an infectious illness; others, like Rav Hirsch, insisted that the rules governing the management of tzara’at indicate beyond doubt that it was not infectious. For an excellent study of this disagreement, see MD Spitzer's excellent article: ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’. Yet whatever the nature of the disorder, the rabbis insist that it was visited on the sufferer as a punishment for one of a range of anti-social crimes, such as theft, arrogance or, more famously, gossip.
It occurs to me that whether or not tzara’at was actually contagious, the socially-destructive, toxic mind-set that underlies the behaviour that produced it most certainly is. Negativity, destructive talk, and the unwillingness to see good in others, all pollute the atmosphere within a community. Apart from the direct harm they cause, they also preclude positive thinking, stifle altruism and lead to self-seeking individualism rather than co-operation and mutual-affirmation. It is unsurprising that the Torah removes the pedlars of this poison from society, isolating them and their world-view from everyone else; this allows them a period of reflection and re-orientation before their re-admission to normal life.
And if negativity and anti-social behaviour are infectious, positivity, altruism and the insistence on always seeing good in others are even more so! We’ve all been touched by a contagious smile or a random act of kindness; these can spread like wildfire and change our world.
 MD Spitzer', ‘Is Tsara’at infectious? A unified theory of Tsaraat’, in Degel: Torah and Jewish Studies from Alei Tzion, Tishrei 5771, Vol. 3 (1), pp. 23-30, available at < http://www.aleitzion.co.uk/contents_files/5771-degel-tishrei-563.pdf>.