Please, if you feel inspired to do so, pray for my mother, Yehudis bas Tzviya (Judith, daughter of Sylvia). She is 82 years old, and has a heart condition. She is being evaluated at a medical center, and may need to be hospitalized. She had been diagnosed with stage 2 heart failure; at current, further testing is being done.
The skin diseases falling under the category or tzarras (often translated as “leprosy”) needed to be determined by a kohein (Leviticus 13:1-2). Yet, the so-called “plague of leprosy,” as mentioned in the Tanach, is not exactly the leprosy of more modern times. Rather, it is a category of various skin diseases that need to be determined by the Kohein: for only the Kohein has the authority to make the pronouncement. “And the [kohein] priest shall look on him and pronounce him unclean” (Leviticus 13:3, JPS).
The leprosy of biblical times was the result of spiritual malaise, commonly, the result of lashon harah (literally, evil tongue – a type of gossip). “The word, metzorah (someone, who has tzaaras – leprosy) is a contraction of motzi ra, meaning, “one who spreads slander” (Arachin 15b). The very visible chastisement is meant to show that the metzorah must mend his ways. In other words, the outward sign is meant to compel him to do teshuvah (repentance).
Sin may be manifest in our lives, living below the surface of our awareness. For this reason, one must make an attempt to examine one’s life. There are visible signs, at times, that we need to understand as wake-up calls. Also, when the children of Israel entered the land, sometimes they found mold in the walls; so, they would have to dig out the mold. On the one hand, the nega (plague) in the form of mold should serve for them to search their conscience, on the other hand, they often found hidden treasures in the walls, hidden by the previous occupants, the Canaanites, who hoped to return. By way of an analogy, there is always a reward for rectifying our faults.
“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”
– Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach
B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.'” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.
It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.
Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. When they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).
In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The concern of the Moabites was that they could potentially be attacked by the Children of Israel. They had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).
Balaam’s three attempts to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, he and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed'” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).
Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). So, not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead.
Reflecting on the complaints of the Children of Israel, concerning the provision of manna and water that H’Shem provided for them, it is interesting to note that they were not somehow prevented from complaining; rather, they were rebuked after the fact. If there was some way that H’Shem could prevent us from complaining in life, then, perhaps, instead of words of negativity, we would speak positive words each and every time. Our intended curses would be transformed into blessings. “Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, JPS).
“Whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; what prayer and supplication soever be made by any man of all Thy people Israel, who shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house; then hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling-place, and forgive.”
1 Kings 8:37-39, JPS 1917 Tanach
In the midst of our nisyanos (trials), we need to recognise the condition of our own hearts, and look within towards whatever may be likened to a plague that diminishes the moral quality of our thoughts, speech, and actions, from G-d’s perspective of our character. In His eyes, we need to make amends for our shortcomings, failures to heed doing what we know is right, and our negative character traits that may lead towards unrighteousness. Yet, He will be merciful towards us, and forgive us; and, then, H’Shem willing, healing of mind, body, and spirit will occur over time.
“And Aharon stood in the midst, between the dead and the living with the [incense] censer, and interceded in prayer; and the plague was restrained” (Numbers 17:13, Targum Yonaton, Sefaria.org). When we turn our hearts to H’Shem (the L-RD; literally, the Name), we may take advantage of a tried and true remedy: prayer. In Hebrew, tefillah, from the shoresh (root word), FLL, meaning to judge, implies the use of discernment to differentiate between what is essential and nonessential in one’s life. Sheltering in place brings the opportunity for introspection in regard to what is important in our lives. “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee” (Psalm 141:2, JPS 1917 Tanach.