Parashat Tazria/ Mezora 5780
The basic mitzvah of Sefirat haOmer, in which we are engaged during this season, is simply to count aloud, day by day, each of the forty-nine days of the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot. The kabbalistic tradition, consistent with its vision of tikkun, repairing the soul and repairing the world, has layered on to this mitzvah a set of kavanot, intentions, using its flexible system of Sefirot, the categories of divine revelation by which all of reality is understood to be structured and guided. Seven of the ten Sefirot can be characterized as a set of moral qualities: love, judgment, harmony, endurance, discipline, creativity and right action, in that order. So the kabbalists assign these seven qualities to the weeks and days of Sefirat haOmer. Each of the seven weeks is associated with one of the seven moral Sefirot, in the order just listed; and within each week, each of the seven days are also associated with one of these seven moral Sefirot in the same order. So each day takes on a nuanced ethical character, a combination of the general attribute of its week modified by the specific attribute of the day. Since the core principle of Torah is that human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27, 5:1), these qualities also structure and guide human nature. Set up in this way, the mitzvah of Counting the Omer becomes a process of ethical accounting and self-improvement. The permutations of the combined moral qualities of each day provide a series of daily themes that help us take stock of our character, to focus and work on those moral qualities, day by day, to fix and perfect ourselves: tikkun ha-nefesh – repair of the soul.
The period of Sefirat HaOmer has acquired another, darker theme, however, based on a historical event. According to the Gemara Yevamot (62b):
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב עמוד ב
אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה… תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא, ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה. מאי היא? א”ר נחמן: אסכרה.
They said: Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students, from [the towns of] Givat to Antipras, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not behave with respect for each other… It is taught: they all died from Pesach to Shavuot. Rabbi Chama bar Abba, or perhaps Rabbi Hiyya bar Avin, said: they all died a difficult death. What was it? Rabbi Nachman said: ascarah.
Ascarah was a lethal respiratory illness, a highly contagious epidemic that swept through Rabbi Akiva’s yeshivah students. Sounds eerily familiar. The Gemara regards the epidemic as a punishment for the students’ lack of respect for each other. The traditional acknowledgement of this tragedy is the observance of a set of restrictions during the Sefirah period, after Pesach and at least up to Lag BaOmer: no weddings, no music, no haircuts – restrictions that come from mourning customs.
Illness as punishment is a theme found throughout Torah and rabbinic literature. As a rhetorical device, a warning to the healthy to mind and mend their ways or else, it may be effective. For those suffering from illness, however, to tell them they’re being punished seems cruel, adding insult to injury. But the Torah concept of punishment needs to be properly understood. The naïve model of punishment is extrinsic harm imposed by an authority figure on person for misbehavior. But in Torah and rabbinic literature what is called punishment is ultimately directed by God, infinitely compassionate. We need a more mature model for this.
This week’s double parashah also focuses on illness, the condition called tzara’at, a skin ailment mistranslated as leprosy, but which is closer, symptomatically and even linguistically, to psoriasis – though those who suffer from psoriasis today do not have the biblical disease tzara’at, not at all. The treatment of the person with tzara’at is described in the parashah:
ויקרא פרק יג פסוק מה מו
והצרוע אשר בו הנגע בגדיו יהיו פרמים וראשו יהיה פרוע ועל שפם יעטה וטמא טמא יקרא:
כל ימי אשר הנגע בו יטמא טמא הוא בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו: ס
The person afflicted with the plague of tzara’at should have his garments disheveled and his hair unkempt, and should cover his lips and call out “impure, impure.” All the days he has the plague he is considered impure, alone he should sit, outside the camp is his dwelling.
The rabbinic tradition regards tzara’at as a consequence of speaking ill of others. But it’s not just punitive. The illness and its treatment are understood to be a process that leads to greater self-awareness and the resolve to overcome negative patterns of behavior (Or ha-Hayyim). The afflicted person sits alone as a hygiene precaution to avoid contagion (Da’at Zekeinim), but also, as the Gemara Erkhin 16b explains, as a measure for measure consequence of his socially divisive behavior, to reflect on himself, change his ways, be healed and become repatriated to the community. According to the Gemara Mo’ed Katan 5a, that the person afflicted with tzara’at sits and calls out “impure, impure” is not that he’s being pilloried. Quite the opposite:
מלמד שצריך להודיע צערו לרבים ורבים מבקשים עליו רחמים
It teaches that he should inform the public of his distress so they will seek mercy for him.
Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, in Nefesh haHayyim, (2:11), explains that the deeper rabbinic understanding of illness and of all trouble in life is not punishment. Rather, in a startling inversion, he says that illness and trouble, difficult as they are, on the spiritual level are actually like therapeutic medicine themselves, a process of moral and spiritual healing, setting limits, teaching us lessons about ourselves, our strengths and vulnerabilities, our relations with others, our relationship with God, and motivating us to make changes in our behavior if possible.
One of the most extreme examples of this understanding of illness is the case of the great Tanna Nachum Ish Gamzu, brought in the Gemara Ta’anit 21a:
They said of Nachum Ish Gamzu that he was blind in both eyes, deformed in both hands, paralyzed in both legs and his whole body was covered in ulcers. He lay in a rickety house and the legs of his bed were placed in jars of water so that ants would not climb on him. Once, his students sought to change his bed and change the jars. He said to them “my sons, change the jars and afterwards change my bed. For you are guaranteed that as long as I am in the house, the house won’t fall. They changed the jars and afterwards changed his bed and then the house fell. His students said to him “Rabbi, since you are a completely righteous person, why has this happened to you?” He said to them “my sons, I caused this to myself. For one time I was walking on the road to my father-in-law’s house, and I had with me burden enough for three donkeys: one of food, one of drink and one of various delicacies. A certain poor person came and stood before me on the road and said to me “Rabbi, sustain me.” I said to him “wait until I unload the donkey.” I didn’t even get an opportunity to unload the donkey before he died. I went and fell on his face and said “my eyes that did not have pity on your eyes – let them be blind. My hands that did not have pity on your hands – let them be deformed. My legs that did not have pity on your legs – let them be paralyzed. I was still not satisfied until I said “let my whole body be covered with ulcers.” They said “woe to us, that we have seen you in this condition.” He said to them “Woe to me, if you didn’t see me in this condition.
The righteous Nachum Ish Gamzu, who is buried in Tzfat, literally took illness upon himself for his failure to help a destitute, starving person in a timely way. The commentators note that his mistake was unintentional: he did not realize how desperate the poor man’s situation was, and he thought the mitzvah to unload a donkey struggling under its load took precedence. He misjudged the situation. His self-affliction was not just a self-punishment and not just an expiation. As he says, it was his way, his extreme way, of learning to feel true compassion for another human being and their suffering.
The period of Sefirat haOmer is an opportunity for Tikkun, for soul repair. The kabbalistic liturgy can offer us a structure for working on ourselves morally and spiritually. The mourning customs in recollection of the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students can teach us the importance of care and respect for others. And the present crisis gripping the world, the terrible epidemic that has killed almost 200,000 people and sickened over two million, should move us all to work more sincerely on caring compassionately for each other – doing our best to help each other, and to protect each other through careful social distancing on the physical level, that is really bringing our hearts closer together to heal this suffering world.