This is largely a recap of פרשת תזריע־מצורע תשע״ז. This is a particularly resonant parasha this year, with the aspects of disease, contamination, plague and isolation.
We all know that צרעת is attributed to לשון הרע, and many have taken this as a lesson from COVID-19 as well:
(I’m not claiming that the pandemic exists because of Lashon Hara, but any tragedy is an opportunity for חשבון הנפש)
צרעת even includes the need for wearing a mask—על שפם יעטה.
The interpretation that צרעת comes because of לשון הרע is from ספר דברים:
If you know the מפרשי תורה, this Ibn Ezra is amazing. He usually strictly deals with the פשט; here is is saying that what is a דרש in ויקרא is פשט here.
These two parshiot list a sequence of נגעים, from צרעת of the skin to the hair, to clothing, to houses (the ceremony for purification is right before the צרעת הבית description, for reasons that we will not go into now). Rambam says (based on the gemara) these are in order, from worst to most benign, and that there is a divine lesson here:
But Rashi seems to have a different perspective on, specifically, צרעת הבית. He doesn’t read it as a punishment.
Based on Avigdor Boinchek’s What’s Bothering Rashi, Vayikra, Rashi is looking at the parallel to a later pasuk:
Every other example of צרעת uses the expression כי יהיה. This specifically says ונתתי, ”I will give“, which has the implication of being a gift, a positive thing. What’s interesting is that Rashi is combining two sources with his לפי. The first is the ספרא, quoted in the gemara as well:
ר׳ שמעון (in Malbim’s understanding) says that ונתתי means that these laws only apply to miraculous נגעים; if they can be attributed to natural causes then they are not צרעת הבית. ר׳ יהודה says the term ונתתי means that it is a בשורה, which generally means good news, but in context it just means “a prediction”, as Rashi himself says on the gemara:
The other source for Rashi is the Midrash Rabbah:
This is not obviously connected to the idea of בשורה. Ramban agrees with the Rashi on the pasuk that בשורה means “good news”, but he interprets it very differently: the fact that ה׳ cares enough about us to punish us is a sign of His relationship.
Rashi seems to be going out of his way here to read צרעת הבית positively, as a reward in and of itself.
Another example: the owner of the house has to remove all their belongings to the street.
to the Midrash:
Artscroll notes the different interpretations and says אין הכי נמי, ”[t]wo very different explanations are given by the Sages and cited by the commentators“. Rashi, in fact, considers צרעת הבית is not a punishment like the other forms of צרעת.
I would propose that Rashi has to agree that צרעת is a negative thing. However, as we’ve noted, it is generally taken to be a divine response to things like לשון הרע, גסות הרוח and צרות העין. These are more character traits, bad מידות, than sins. They are more in the realm of מוסר than הלכה. And you can’t change character by punishing. I talk to parents about this all the time. To change a habit or a character trait, the person has to want to change. They need to buy in to the program.
If I want to quit smoking, I could start a program where someone follows me around with a baseball bat and hits me over the head every time I lit up. But after a day, I’d quit—not smoking, but the program. Negative reinforcement (response is strengthened by removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus) only works if the person can’t get out of the reinforcement therapy entirely, like a prisoner or a child. Otherwise what is reinforced is the behavior of “don’t go to this therapist any more”. Or, for teenagers, “lie to my parents and hide my dysfunctional behavior”.
So צרעת starts, at least, as positive reinforcement for the good behavior: acknowledge that a problem exists, go to the כהן for purification, and you will be rewarded. It’s only if that doesn’t work that ה׳ increases the consequences (and, of course, ה׳'s reward and punishment is the ultimate example of being unable to escape negative reinforcement).
It’s a useful lesson in dealing with our own children.