The two portions of the Torah, Tazria-Metzora deal with the laws concerning צרעת, tzara’at, a skin disease that required the afflicted person to separate from the community until he was completely healed. The Hebrew word for “disease” in this context is נגע, however, this root also has an apparently different meaning, “to touch” (לנגוע). Although these two meanings seem to be completely different, since Hebrew is the Holy Tongue, the fact that they share exactly the same root cannot be mere coincidence. Let’s see what the connection between these two words is.
Firstly, just as disease is a negative phenomenon, so too most of the references to touching in the Bible are also negative. For example, in the laws of impurity in the portion of Metzora in which the expression “anyone who touches… will become impure.” In fact, the first time this verb appears in the Torah is in the negative commandment not to touch the Tree of Knowledge. But why should physical contact be considered something negative?
In Jewish law, another use of this very same root is when someone has a personal interest or bias concerning something, which could disqualify him from testifying in a law case. Similarly, in Chassidut, personal interest (also called a נגיעה, a "touch," as it were) is considered negative in a person’s service of God.
This idea helps bring us to the understanding that negative contact is when a person touches someone or something for his own personal interests. This is most true when a person wants to feel touched, a desire which, when overemphasized, may even bring him to touch himself in an exaggerated fashion. This type of self-contact is the source of what is referred to as, “the blemish of the covenant,” which leads to types of contact that are prohibited by Torah law instead of positive relationships. This is why these diseases appear in the Torah portion which begins with the phrase, “When a woman bears seed,” and why their description follows the laws of the diseases that appear with other types of impurity, including the impurity of masturbation. The Hebrew word for seed in both these cases is זרע, which is closely related to the word צרעת, tzara’at, the skin disease mentioned above (the letters ז and צ are interchangeable as they are both pronounced with the teeth[i]). When a person harms himself spiritually by prohibited contact, he is liable to be afflicted on his skin – the very same organ that took illicit pleasure in the act of contact.[ii]
The sages teach us that the major cause of tzara’at is actually illicit speech. However, in Kabbalah,[iii] we learn that the tongue, the organ of speech, is similar to the procreative organ and that there is also a need “to circumcise” our speech. The tongue is the conveyer of our inner communication through speech and it is liable to be flawed through idle chatter or through various types of prohibited speech that “touch” our friends and acquaintances in painful or harmful ways. Once more, it all begins from the fact that a person touches himself and puts his own ego in the center of things. Putting the ego first is indicated by the fact that the root נגע, meaning “to touch” (in the sense of “disease”), appears in these portions of the Torah 61 times, which is also the numerical value of the word “I” (אני)–the ego.
Touching the Heart
But not every form of contact or touch is evil. There is a very positive form of touch – the caring touch of true empathy, when a person is not apathetic to what happens to him and to those around him, but “takes things to heart” in a positive way. The verse that best expresses this type of positive touch appears in reference to King Saul’s followers, “And the soldiers went with him, those whose hearts had been touched by God.”[iv] These people had no need to see any superficial successes of the newly chosen king because God’s word had touched them at some inner point of their hearts and they immediately recognized and followed their true king.
The rectification of undesirable contact begins with complete abstinence from any contact. We learn this from the person afflicted with tzara’at, who is commanded to segregate himself from the community until he is healed, warning everyone that they are not to come near him. The rectification continues by nullifying the "ego," (אני) until it transforms into "nothingness" (אין)—the two words are a permutation of one another. In place of the egocentricity that demanded its place in the limelight, we need modesty and humility to refresh the soul with the quality of selflessness. This is hinted at by the purification ritual that the afflicted person must undergo in order to complete his healing process so that he can return to dwell with other people. He takes the log of a cedar tree, representing his previously lofty egocentricity, and then brings a scarlet thread and a bunch of moss, which represent his newly acquired humility.
Yet, the ultimate rectification comes as a result of utilizing the power of touch itself in a positive fashion. This is known as healing like with like. The source of affliction becomes a source of healing. Self interest caused by egocentricity caused the sense of touch to pursue improper contact. Once the ego is rectified, a healthy sense of positive touch returns when reality touches my heart and I can once more become actively engage it in a totally personal way, but in a rectified manner.
The Diseased Redeemer
Surprisingly, the disease of tzara’at appears in a very unique way in the greatest leaders of Israel in particular, beginning with Moses, whose hand turns as white as snow (just for a few moments) from tzara’at[v] and Miriam the Prophetess, whose tzara’at is a sign for all generations to remember.[vi] But most surprising of all is that the Mashiach, the final redeeming king of Israel, will initially be inflicted with tzara’at, as we find in Isaiah, “And we thought him to be inflicted, plagued by God and tortured,”[vii] and as he is referred to in the Talmud as “the pale student of Rebbi’s school”[viii] (i.e. pale and white as a result of being afflicted by tzara’at).
Mashiach is inflicted in this way because he constantly senses the illnesses plaguing the Jewish people: the difficulty of our exile, and the state of every Jew, wherever he or she may be. The Mashiach is touched by the current state of the Jewish people. But, although this is a very positive application of the sense of touch, resulting from the Mashiach's total identification with the situation of the entire Jewish people whose hearts have not yet been “touched by God,” he suffers greatly because of it, “Indeed, our sickness has he borne and our pain has he suffered.”[ix] The moment that each one of us will be touched and take to heart the present state of the Jewish people, who are still in exile, all of the afflictions will turn into positive contact and the Mashiach will able to begin his reign: “Today – if you listen to his voice.”[x]
[ii]. See our volume Body, Mind, and Soul, where it is explained that the skin corresponds to foundation (yesod).
[iii]. Sefer Yetzirah 1:2.
[iv] I Samuel, 10:26.
[v] Exodus, 4:6.
[vi] Numbers, 12:10.
[vii] Isaiah, 53:4.
[viii] Sanhedrin, 98b.
[ix] Isaiah, ibid.
[x] Sanhedrin, 98a.