The Problem with Leaders

We are in the midst of the campaign season.  We are confronted by candidates who easily, readily, and frequently, identify and dwell upon each other’s flaws.  Perhaps, these candidates are correct – they are all seriously flawed. They are like the rest of humanity!  But the question arises:  What flaws are tolerable and which are unacceptable? What flaws disqualify a person from leadership and which are the foibles we must accept as part of the candidate’s humanity?  Our parasha has something to say on this issue.  It provides us with material for our consideration. 

And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of tzara’at; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. (VaYikra 13:3)

  1. The kohen declares a person to have tzara’at

Parshat Tazria presents the laws regarding tzara’at.  Tzara’at is an affliction of the skin.  It is contracted as a consequence of committing specific sins.  Most commonly, it is described as associated with lashon ha’ra – communicating disparaging reports about an individual.  A person who contracts tzara’at in its most developed stage is subjected to a form of excommunication. The person is excluded from the camp or his community for the duration of the affliction.  He must adopt the behaviors of a mourner and warn others of his condition.  His condition renders him ritually defiled and this excludes him from entry into the Sacred Temple or even Jerusalem.

One of the interesting aspects of tzara’at is that only a kohen can declare a person as having contracted the affliction.  Also, once the kohen pronounces the presence of the affliction and the person is rendered defiled or impure – tameh – only a kohen can pronounce the affliction as having subsided.  After this pronouncement, the person who was previously afflicted can undergo a process of restoring his ritual purity. 

The role of the kohen has various implications.  Tzara’at is basically a white discoloration of the skin.  However, the laws governing whether a discoloration is actually tzara’at are extensive and complex.  Also, tzara’at has different stages.  These stages have more or less severe consequences.  In order for a discoloration to be properly assessed, mastery of a substantial body of scholarship is required.

This suggests that only a kohen who has achieved erudition in the laws governing tzara’at can declare a person to have contracted the affliction or determine that it has subsided.  However, this is not the case.  The kohen is needed to make the pronouncement of the presence or absence of tzara’at.  He is not required to rely upon his own scholarship.  He may be advised by a scholar who is expert in the laws.  The scholar may provide the kohen with his judgment regarding the presence of tzara’at.  Based upon this judgment, the kohen makes his pronouncement. 

In short, the role of the kohen is essential but limited.  Only the kohen can pronounce the presence of tzara’at or that it has healed.  However, he need not make this pronouncement based upon his own assessment and judgment.  He may base his pronouncement upon the report provided by a non-kohen scholar. 

This raises a question that is fundamental to understanding tzara’at.  Why is the kohen needed?  Why do we not rely upon the assessment of the scholar and allow him to decide whether the subject is afflicted by tzara’at or has contracted a more commonplace affliction?  Why is the kohen’s declaration that the person is healed required before he may enter into the purification process? 

The kohen renders the person afflicted with tzara’at

The first step in answering this question is to better understand the role of the kohen.  Two aspects of this role must be considered.  First, as explained, he must make the declaration of the presence of tzara’at or that the affliction has passed.  What is the role and impact of this declaration? 

The declaration actually confers upon the subject the status of having tzara’at and of being impure. His declaration renders the subject healed and suitable for the purification process.  In this respect, this declaration differs from a typical halachic pronouncement.  For example, a person accidentally allowed a dairy ingredient to contaminate a cooking utensil used for meat.  This person is uncertain whether the contamination has made the utensil prohibited from further use.  The person consults with an authority and learns that the manner in which the utensil was contaminated was so minor as to not impact it.  What was the role of the authority in this example?  The authority did not render the utensil permitted. Neither could his response have rendered the utensil forbidden.  His ruling merely interpreted the events of the contamination.  He evaluated whether the contamination was serious enough to impact the utensil.  However, it was the degree of contamination that determined the status of the utensil and not the ruling of the authority. The authority played a role identical to a pathologist.  The pathologist does not render tissue diseased or healthy.  He studies the tissue and reports on the conclusions of his observations.

This is very different from the role of the kohen in the laws of tzara’at.  The pronouncement of the kohen actually renders the person as having tzara’at or renders the person suitable for the purification process.  If a person has all of the symptoms of tzara’at but has not been viewed by a kohen and declared by him to have tzara’at, he remains ritually pure.  Conversely, if a person is completely healed but has not been viewed by the kohen and declared healed, the purification process will be ineffective.  In short, the kohen does not merely report on his observation and assessment.  His declaration actually confers status.

There is a second aspect of the role of the kohen that must be identified.  This second aspect is evidenced in an incident described in Sefer BeMidbar. 

Let her not be like a stillborn child, who comes from the womb with half of its flesh rotten away. (BeMidbar 12:12)

The kohen is a healer

Miryam inappropriately criticized her brother, Moshe, to Aharon.  Her actions were judged by Hashem to violate the prohibition lashon harah - tale bearing.  Hashem punished Miryam with the disease of tzara’at.  Aharon describes to Moshe the suffering of a person stricken by the tzara’at and appeals to Moshe to intercede with Hashem on their sister's behalf.

Consider the following issue.  A person exhibits the symptoms of tzara’at.  Only a kohen can declare the person a metzorah or free of symptoms.  Can a kohen who is a relative of the subject, make these decisions?  This issue is disputed in the Mishna.  According to Rebbe Meir, such a kohen is disqualified from passing judgment on a relative.

The Midrash interprets Aharon's plea to Moshe based upon this opinion.  All living kohanim were related to Miryam.  Aharon argued that no one was available to declare her free of the condition.

The Tosefot ask an obvious question on this Midrash.  If all kohanim were related to Miryam, then no kohen could declare Miryam to be a metzora’at – one afflicted with tzara’at.  She would not become ritually unclean and would not require the declaration of a kohen to restore ritual cleanliness.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv) offers an interesting answer to the Tosafot's question.  He explains that the symptoms of tzara’at are caused by sin.  The condition cannot be treated medically.  It will not pass with time.  Only repentance can cure this disease.  The declaration of the kohen and the subsequent consequences initiate this repentance.  They are essential for the removal of the condition.  Through experiencing the legal consequences of the condition and repentance, the subject becomes cured of the physical symptoms.  This explains Aharon's plea.  No kohen could declare Miryam to be a metzora’at.  She could not experience the legal consequences of the condition.  She could not atone for her sin through accepting these legal consequences and repenting.  Without this atonement, she could not hope for relief from the physical condition.  Aharon beseeched Moshe to intervene with Hashem.  Moshe should ask Hashem to relieve Miryam of the symptoms without the legal process related to the condition.  Moshe agrees with Aharon and prayed to Hashem to cure Miryam.

Now, the role of the kohen is more fully understood.  The kohen renders the subject to have tzara’at and to be healed.  It is the kohen’s pronouncement that the subject is afflicted that allows the healing process to begin.  This process requires the repentance of the stricken individual.  In other words, a person who contracts this affliction cannot be cured without the kohen first declaring the person to have tzara’at.  If the person would engage in all of the prescribed practices of mourning and subject himself to exclusion from the community, his efforts would prove worthless.  They must be preceded by and be a response to the kohen’s declaration.

This analysis reveals the true nature of the kohen in tzara’at.  Superficially, one might conclude that the kohen afflicts the subject.  After all, until the subject is seen by and declared afflicted by the kohen, he is not defiled.  The kohen’s declaration confers upon him the status of having tzara’at.  Our analysis reveals that this superficial conclusion is false.  It is true that the kohen declares the person to be afflicted and impure.  But this declaration is essential for the healing process to begin.  In its absence, the subject will remain diseased indefinitely.  No medical treatment or other material action will bring relief.  The kohen’s declaration is dreaded, and maybe, even resented.  But it is the beginning of hope and salvation.

The selection of the kohen for proclaiming tzara’at

With this developed understanding of his role, we can return to our initial question.  Why was the kohen selected for this role?  Why was it not assigned to the courts or to a qualified authority? 

The kohen serves as the apparent healer.  But he is not endowed with a magical power to create an affliction or to heal it.  His declaration of affliction allows for the healing process to begin.  But this is not through some mysterious power with which the kohen is endowed.  The declaration of the kohen is effective because Hashem interacts with the kohen, the subject, and the disease.  Hashem heals the disease in response to the kohen’s declaration and the repentance it initiates. 

Recognition of the role that the kohen truly plays is essential. How ironic it would be if the afflicted person believed that the kohen somehow cured him!  Rather than drawing closer to Hashem, this person would admire and even esteem the kohen.  Tzara’at would cease to be a catalyst for introspection and spiritual growth. Instead, it would become a vehicle for the aggrandizement of those perceived to have the power to heal.

Only those closely associated with the service of Hashem – those understood to be His servants and agents – could be entrusted with the role of making the pronouncements regarding tzara’at.  Only this person would be understood as acting as Hashem’s agent and not as endowed with special mystical powers.   Who would people recognize as Hashem’s servants and agents?  The kohanim – the individuals selected by Hashem to serve Him in his sanctuary and to serve as His teachers to the people – were assigned this role.   

This discussion is relevant to one of the fundamental challenges in political and community leadership.  Effective leadership requires charisma.  People may be inspired by ideas.  But in the long-term, they act in response to the direction provided by effective leaders.  The problem is that this commitment to the leader sometimes replaces dedication to the nation or to the organization’s mission.  The results can be disastrous for the leader and the nation or organization.  The leader becomes intoxicated by the adoration of followers and the followers do not even recognize that the nation’s or organization’s mission has been usurped by the interests of the leader. 

This issue is relevant to political candidates and has an added dimension when we are considering religious organizations.  In any Jewish religious organization, our first priority is to serve Hashem.  Our mission is only the means by which we pursue this priority.  We must take care that the interests and perpetuation of the organization or its leader do not take precedence over the organization’s mission and this first priority.  That is not easily achieved.

The above discussion provides some perspective on this issue. The Torah did not want any person to take the place of Hashem in the minds of the people.  This consideration is reflected in selection of the kohen for his role in tzara’at. The Torah is describing a strategy it employed in assuring that first priorities are served.