The main topic of this week's parasha is that of the metzora, loosely defined as a leper. After the Torah gives us, in excruciating detail, all of the various forms of marks that will make a person impure, we are told finally of his punishment: He shall sit alone outside of the camp (Vayikra 13:46).

The question that we will deal with is what is the purpose of this punishment? What sin brings about this disease in a person, and how is solitude supposed to counteract the drives that caused the individual to commit such a sin? To answer this question, we will look at parallel situations in the rest of Chumash.

The term used to describe the punishment of the metzora is "badad" - alone. Scanning through the rest of Chumash (and Tanach, for that matter), we discover that there are only three other people to whom this term - specifically in the form of "livado" - by himself - is applied. The first is Adam, about whom it is said "It is not good that man be alone, I will make him a helpmeet opposite him." (Bereishit 2:18) The second such person is Yaakov, immediately before his wrestling match with the mystery man. There the Torah states "And Yaakov was left alone, and a man fought with him." (Bereishit 32:24) Finally, before his ascent to Har Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu was left alone, separate from his brother and the elders. The Torah tells us that "Moshe alone approached the Lord." (Shemot 24:2)

What does all of this mean? Is there anything significant about these three individuals in these particular situations that can help us to understand the force of this term? I believe that a close look at what really happens in each case will provide with an answer in the affirmative.

Before the creation of Eve, Adam was alone in the world. He was charged with working and protecting the Garden of Eden, and he had a close relationship with Hashem. As Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik points out in "Lonely Man of Faith," the creation of Eve changed all of that in a highly significant fashion. Adam was now joined with Eve in forming the first community. Henceforth, they would interact with each other and grow together. Adam was no longer an individual, but rather part of a greater whole, a point emphasized by the verse that "they shall be as one flesh." (Bereishit 2:24) Adam was alone for a brief moment, but he emerged from that solitude as a different person, as part of a greater whole.

A similar transformation occurs with Yaakov. His wresting match occurred just before his encounter with his brother Eisav, whom he had not seen for twenty years and who presumably still wanted him dead. The struggle with the unknown man effected a qualitative change in Yaakov, and strengthened him in preparation for meeting his brother. The changing of his name from Yaakov to Yisrael, from a name connoting deceit to one representing might, is a clear indication that his moment alone served to transform him into a man whose essence was different from the man who had stood there just moments earlier.

Finally, we come to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe's stay on Har Sinai can justifiably be referred to as the highest level of human contact with the Divine that has ever occurred. As Adam became part of a team, as Yaakov became Yisrael, Moshe's transformation was reflected (literally) in the Divine glow that emanated from his face when he came down from the mountain. If the giving of the Torah changed the Jewish people from being a group of fugitive slaves to being the Nation of Hashem, then Moshe's stay on the mountain cemented his stature as the leader of Hashem's people. What is important to note is that such a title is not a political one (as Korach later thought), but rather is indicative of a deeper spirituality. Again, it was the time alone that elevated Moshe to this new plateau.

We return now to the metzora. How does he fit into the model laid out by these other three individuals? We are told by the Sages that tzara'at is a punishment for lashon ha-ra, speaking evil or slanderously about another individual. The Chafetz Chaim points out how immense this sin is. Man is a composite being - on the one hand he is like all of the other animals in this world, made of physical matter and vulnerable to the elements. On the other hand, he is created in the image of Hashem, and is comparable in that regard to the heavenly angels (see Chagigah 16a). The power of speech is the point at which these two aspects come together. While several parts of the body are necessary to create a sound, the speech itself is intangible. Cognitive scientists have spoken of a "language instinct," namely something innate in man that enables him to produce speech and create a language, something that no other species has even come close to doing, and something that computers will likely never be able to do (my personal belief). Onkelos translates the "breath of life" (Bereishit 2:7) that Hashem breathed into Adam as "the spirit of speech," and Rav Yehuda Ha-Levi, in his Kuzari, categorizes man as "that which speaks." Clearly, it is this ability that makes humans distinct in the world.

This being the case, one who speaks lashon ha-ra has not merely harmed his fellow man with his words. By saying something that he should not have said, he has utilized his most important feature for the wrong purposes. In doing so, he has negated his own essence and has detracted from his very humanity. As such, he needs a punishment that will not only "teach him a lesson," but one that has the potential to transform him, a punishment that will allow him to find himself and to once again join the community of mankind. Thus, the Torah instructs such a person to leave the camp, to enter a state of solitude. As by Adam, Yaakov, and Moshe, this state of being is designed to allow the metzora to pull himself out of his previous existence and to reflect on his actions and their ramifications for him as well as for others. Only through this process can he elevate himself back to the level necessary to be a part of human society.

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