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The Purpose of Punishment

The titles given to Torah portions do more than distinguish one from another; they reflect the theme and overall content of each.1

What possible connection is there then between the title of Tazria (“Conceive”) and the contents of this portion, which deal mainly with the leprous-like affliction of tzora’as — unknown nowadays — that resulted from evil gossip, Lashon HaRah.

Not only does the title Tazria seem to have no connection with tzora’as , they are seemingly antithetical:

Tazria, “Conceive,” refers to birth and new life, as the verse states:2 “When a woman conceives and gives birth…,” while tzora’as indicates the very opposite, as our Sages state:3 “One afflicted with tzora’as is considered as if dead.”

The concept of Reward and Punishment is one of the foundations of Jewish faith. The Rambam states it thusly:4 “The eleventh fundament is that G-d rewards those who obey the Torah’s commandments and punishes those who transgress them….”

Since the Torah is replete with verses that indicate that G-d is compassionate and merciful, it follows that His punishments are not for the sake of revenge5 — Heaven forbid — but are for the sinners benefit.6

However, it is not patently obvious that most of the Torah’s punishments benefit the individual during his lifetime. This was not the case regarding tzora’as ; it was clearly revealed that this benefited the person:

The Rambam writes:7 “This alteration [of tzora’as] that affects clothing and dwellings…. was not a natural phenomenon. Rather, it was a sign and a wonder that affected the Jewish people in order to keep them from speaking Lashon HaRah. For he who speaks Lashon HaRah will have the beams of his house altered [by tzora’as].

“If he repents, then the house becomes undefiled… If he does not… ultimately the person himself will become afflicted with tzora’as , and will have to be separated from others until he ceases occupying himself with evil speech, scoffing and Lashon HaRah.”

Thus, G-d reordered nature to keep individuals from engaging in Lashon HaRah. Tzora’as would first afflict a person’s home, then his clothing, and finally his person, in order to tell the sinner, gently at first and then more severely, to stop indulging in Lashon HaRah.

Even the punishment of the person himself, which required that he “sit alone; outside the camp shall be his dwelling,”8 was for the purpose of seeing to it that he “cease occupying himself in evil speech, scoffing and Lashon HaRah.”

The reason why this portion is titled Tazria will be understood accordingly: Tazria , “Conceive,” is the beginning of life. The tzora’as itself, as well as the person’s dwelling alone, are not so much meant as a punishment, but as a means of rectification and healing, enabling one to begin a new lifestyle free of Lashon HaRah.

All aspects of Torah serve as a lesson. Tzora’as , then, was clearly for the benefit of the individual. The same is true of all punishments in the Torah; they are all for the rectification of the sinner, that he return to the proper path in life.

And why is this lesson specifically gleaned from tzora’as ? Because the suffering of tzora’as — being considered as if dead and compelled to exist in absolute solitude — is one of the most severe in the Torah.

If in this instance we can clearly see the benefit — being reborn anew, Tazria — then surely this is so with other punishments: they are all part of a sinner’s spiritual rehabilitation, thus helping make a new beginning possible.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXII, pp. 70-73.


FOOTNOTES

1. See sources cited in Likkutei Sichos XXI , p. 250 fns. 1-2.
2. Vayikra 12:1.
3. Nedarim 64b.
4. Commentary to the Mishnah , Introduction to Chapter Cheilek.
5. See Berachos 5a.
6. See Kuzari II-45; Ikrim IIII-38.
7. Conclusion of Hilchos Tumas Tzora’as , and similarly in his Commentary on the Mishnah , Nega’im 12:5; Moreh Nevuchim III-47.
8. Vayikra 13:46.

 

 


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