Metzorah: Intolerable Reluctance


Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein



It must have been quite unpleasant to be a metzora, afflicted with tzoraas.[1] The unsightly lesions and the Torah-mandated quarantine made it difficult to endure. One might expect a metzora to initiate the purification process as quickly as possible so that he could return to normal.

But what if he took a cavalier attitude and was in no hurry to go to the Kohein to become purified? We find a clue in the language of the Torah (14:2), “This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification¾he shall be brought to the Kohein.” Instead of using the active “he shall go to the Kohein,” the Torah uses the passive “he shall be brought to the Kohein.” This implies that he may be brought to the Kohein by force.

Since the Torah finds it necessary to specify that we may force a metzora to comply with the laws that pertain to him, it would appear that this is not the case with regard to other commandments. In fact, however, the possibility of enforced compliance exists with regard to just about all the commandments. In what way does the case of a metzora stand out?

The commandments of the Torah fall into two categories¾positive commandments (mitzvos aseh) and prohibitions (mitzvos lo saaseh). According to the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 4), we may use non-lethal force to prevent the transgression of a prohibition, and lethal force only in extreme cases, such as to prevent a murder. Lethal force may also be used to coerce a neglectful person to fulfill a positive commandment; as the Talmud states (Kesubos 86a), “He is beaten to within an inch of his life.”

The laws of metzora fall into the category of positive commandments. What additional guidelines regarding the use of force apply to them, as suggested by the verse?

There is a disagreement on this issue in the Shulchan Aruch. In general, according to Ketzos Hachoshen, only rabbinical judges and not laypeople may use potentially lethal force to gain compliance with positive commandments. But with regard to tzoraas, any individual may exert life-threatening force to bring the metzora to the Kohein.

Nesivos Hamishpat disagrees; he maintains that the use of lethal force is never restricted to rabbinical judges. Laypeople have the right to force compliance of any positive commandments on their recalcitrant brothers. With tzoraas, however, they have not only a right but also an obligation.

According to both views, the Torah broadens the scope of the license to use lethal force to effect compliance with the laws of tzoraas. Why?

Let us first consider the difference between positive commandments and prohibitions. Penalties for the violation of prohibitions are generally more severe; they often entail capital punishment, corporeal punishment or untimely death. The penalties for violation of positive commandments are almost never so severe. Yet paradoxically, the Torah permits lethal force to assure compliance with a positive commandment but not with a prohibition. How do we explain this?

The answer lies in a basic distinction between positive commandments and prohibitions. A person who contemplates the transgression of a prohibition has not yet done anything wrong; although he is considering rebellion, he has not actually taken the step. Therefore, we may not apply lethal force to restrain him, even though the potential sin is grave.

On the other hand, when a person rejects a positive commandment that comes his way, he is instantly in violation. He rebels against God every moment he refuses to act. This person has violated his very raison d’être, and there is no limit to the force we may exert to curtail his rebellion.

Now let us consider why the Torah indicates an added requirement and urgency to curtail the rebellion of a metzora who fails to comply with the laws of tzoraas.

Our Sages deduce the cause of tzoraas from the two instances of its occurrence in the Torah. In the first (Exodus 4:6-8), Moses doubts that the people will believe he is God’s messenger, and God afflicts his arm with tzoraas as a sign of his mission. Later on (Numbers 12:10), Moses’ sister Miriam criticizes him for separating from his wife after reaching his level of prophecy; Miriam is stricken with tzoraas. Moses and Miriam spoke improperly, and the Sages deduce that tzoraas is caused primarily by the sin of lashon hara.

Let us reflect. Most sins have no immediate physical manifestations. Why then did God create tzoraas as a sign of the sin of lashon hara?

The Talmud considers misfortune a warning signal of wrongdoing and a call for self-examination, but there is no absolute surety. Misfortune is not always a sign of overt providence; it may come independent of sin and in any case, it appears to occur through natural means. Tzoraas, however, is an exception; it is always an external supernatural manifestation of an internal failing. If there is tzoraas, there is sin. Tzoraas is the only Halachic institution that serves as type of interface between the legal system and an expression of God’s supernatural providential hand; God intervenes in the laws of nature to create the malady­.

In this light, we can understand why failure to comply with the laws of tzoraas is a far greater rebellion than failure to comply with other positive commandments. Once God shows the afflicted providentially and publicly that he has sinned, he must go to the Kohein to expiate his sin. His rejection of this obligation is a flagrant affront to God, and it incumbent on all of Israel to set him right.

Although tzoraas is the result of sin, the only two people mentioned in the Torah who actually contracted this malady are Moses and Miriam, two of the most perfectly righteous people that ever appeared on the face of the earth. There is no happenstance in the Torah; the choice of these two as the paradigm of tzoraas sufferers is surely instructive.

By any objective measure, these two stellar personalities were righteous beyond our conception. Nonetheless, relative to their own potential, there must have been some minuscule failing that manifested itself through the tzoraas. The Torah’s message is that it is not for us to pass judgment when we encounter someone afflicted with tzoraas, or any suffering for that matter, since it reflects a failing relative to his potential. In the case of Moses or Miriam, it may be a failing we cannot even begin to fathom.

[1] Tzoraas is often mistranslated as leprosy. It is really a non-clinical affliction that discolors the body, clothing or residence and results in ritual impurity (tumah).