By Rav David Silverberg
The Torah in Parashat Tazria (13:2) begins its presentation of the laws of tzara’at with the words, “Adam ki yiheyeh be-or besaro” – speaking of a situation where a person notices a whitening of part of his flesh. The verse continues by instructing that the discoloration should be shown to a kohen, who then renders a ruling as to whether it qualifies as a tzara’at infection, based on the guidelines set forth by the Torah.
A number of writers found it significant that the Torah here uses specifically the word “adam” in reference to a person with a suspected tzara’at infection. Several sources indicate that as opposed to other terms commonly used for “person,” the word “adam” connotes the human being at his or her highest level and stature. “Adam” refers not merely to a human being, but to a great human being, a person of moral and spiritual achievement. The use of the term in the context of tzara’at thus caught the attention of several writers, who noted that the word “adam” seems, at first glance, inappropriate for a person who is stricken with tzara’at on account of his misdeeds.
Rav Nissan Alpert, in Limudei Nissan (as cited and discussed by Rav Dovid Gottlieb), suggests that the word “adam” is used in this context because of what is written in the latter part of the verse: “he shall come to Aharon, the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.” The individual is not worthy of the complimentary title “adam” because of the causes of his tzara’at, but he is worthy of this title because of his response to his tzara’at. Rather than ignore the problem, he seeks a remedy by approaching a kohen and beginning the process outlined by the Torah. He accepts the consequences of his mistakes and commits himself to rectify them. By approaching a kohen and showing him the discoloration, the person accepts the likelihood of being banished from his city because of his status, and recognizes the need for the subsequent purification process whereby he is then able to return. And for this, he is truly deserving of the title “adam.”
In Jewish thought, we earn stature not through perfection, or even through near perfection, but rather through honest recognition of our failings and our sincere attempts to overcome them. We achieve the level of “adam” not by ensuring to never contract tzara’at – spiritual illnesses – but rather by endeavoring to cure ourselves when this does happen. We will all experience periods of “impurity,” of failure and decline, and the Torah instructs that the response must be to proactively work to overcome our failures and to constantly pursue personal change and self-improvement.
Originally appears on VBM