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The Leper who dwells alone



Reverend Ilan Herrmann, Lions Shul

Pesach and the month of Nisan emphasises thought. Iyar, the month we have just entered has a particular connection to speech. Sivan, the month of Shavuot relates primarily to action. 

Pesach is the celebration of our freedom. It is the liberation that enables us to have a G-d-defined existence as opposed to one in which we are victims of environmental forces, or impotent bystanders lacking control over our destiny.

Freedom is fundamentally a mindset. If we relinquish our mind, we lose our freedom. Hence Nisan corresponds to thought.

Jumping to Sivan, it is the month that corresponds to action, because that is the essence of Shavuot and what Sinai is all about. The Torah given on Shavuot to Bnei Yisrael, mandates us to actively engage the mundane world and thereby infuse it with holiness. The commandments are primarily action-based. Sivan emphasises the characteristic of action.

In between those two is Iyar, the month we have just begun, the focus of which cenres on speech. During this month we commemorate the tragic episode wrought by misused speech when Rabbi Akivah’s students disrespected one another, which brought on a plague and the loss of 24 000 students. 

It is no co-incidence then, that this week’s portion, Tazria/Metzora, the month’s first, deals with speech. It discusses the skin ailment known as leprosy, manifested as a result of slander and the perpetrator who contracts it has then to go into a state of isolation and subsequent purification before rejoining society.

From the word for isolation/aloneness we discover a powerful concept. The word is “badad”. Elsewhere in the Torah it uses the word to refer to the Jewish people: “A nation that dwells ‘badad’, alone.” This does not mean the Jewish people are reclusive or isolationists.

Their way of life is unique and different and in upholding their Jewish mores they automatically find themselves walking a different and individual path.

The idea here, however, is not only saying that their “aloneness” is an outcome of them asserting their unique character, but, that their “aloneness” is the very description of their being in touch with their unique identity.

A principle: Any time the same word is used in the Torah in different places there is a connection. What is the connection between the esteemed compliment of Bilaam, “A nation that dwells alone” and the leper, who is anything but esteemed and has to isolate himself? They appear opposite!

Understanding Bilaam’s praise gives us the depth here:

By saying the leper must “dwell alone”, the Torah is hinting that the leper has lost something essential and unique.

What distinguishes a human being is speech, the unique characteristic that elevates man above other species. One who slanders has damaged that which makes him human and he must therefore “dwell alone”.

In other words, he must rediscover his uniqueness, his humanness and indeed that of others, in the after-event of him having slandered and thus diminished another.


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