Lep’er n. One suffering from leprosy; outcast. (Webster’s Dictionary)
Webster has it right. Indeed, as our Torah portion tells us (Numbers 4:2), a leper is both one who is suffering from leprosy and an outcast. Unique among other forms of impurity, leprosy causes a person to be sent completely outside the camp[i], all alone and seemingly deserted[ii]. But he is not chased out because he is contagious. The Rabbinic tradition teaches that leprosy was a spiritual malady caused by serious transgressions, specifically sins that brought strife and division among the Jewish people. Because the leper caused separation between friends, between spouses, his punishment should cause him to feel the pain of separation from the community[iii].
The leper is one whom G-d Himself has deemed deserving of punishment. We likely would feel nothing but repugnance toward him.
But should we?
The Torah tells us that the leper is required to proclaim his impurity out loud for all to hear. Why? One understanding is simply so that we stay away from him. But there is another rabbinic teaching that has a deep lesson for us all. Why does the leper cry out loud? So that the public will know of his pain and will pray for mercy for him[iv]. Amazing! What does this say about what our reaction to this possible miser, adulterer, thief, or gossip–monger[v] should be? No sanctimonious judgment, no pointing out to the leper the cause of his suffering, no rejoicing at the downfall of the sinner and the execution of divine justice. Only a prayer for mercy.
If this is the case with someone whom we know has sinned, how much more so is it when we have not been granted divine insight into the cause of someone’s suffering?
Not only is it improper to point out a sin as a cause for suffering, but the Talmud even tells us that such theorizing falls into the category of speech forbidden by the Torah. “You shall not wrong one another” (Leviticus 25:17) is understood to mean that one may not cause another pain by suggesting that a person may be suffering as a result of his sins[vi]. It would seem that one who pointed out a leper’s sins was potentially liable to become stricken with leprosy himself!
The reason for the Torah’s prohibition seems obvious: We all know that we are not truly free from sin ourselves. Better we “remove the beam from between our eyes before we point to the splinter in the teeth of others[vii].” Furthermore, we can never really know why someone is suffering[viii]. It may be that the suffering individual is so great that G-d has punished him for the smallest infraction[ix].
But more fundamentally, the Torah may be teaching us that while we are to hate sin, this hatred may not extend to the sinner[x]. The Jewish people are known for being “compassionate, the children of [those who are] compassionate.[xi]” In this respect, we emulate G-d, whose mercy is on all His creations[xii]. Let us always strive to display respect and compassion for one another and be worthy of this lofty attribute.
[i] See Talmud Eruchin 16b, Rashi to Numbers 4:2.
[ii] See Leviticus 13:46.
[iii] See Talmud Eruchin 16b.
[iv] See Talmud Moed Katan 5a.
[v] See Talmud Eruchin 16a.
[vi] See Talmud Bava Metsi’a 58b.
[vii] See Talmud Bava Basra15b.
[viii] See Talmud Shabbos 33a where the Talmud discusses the suffering of the great sages Abaye, Rava, and Shmuel Hakatan.
[ix] See Maimonides (Mishne Torah,Hilkhot Tuma’at Tsara’at16:10) and Nahmanides (Deuteronomy 24:9) with regards to the great prophetess Miriam.
[x] See Talmud Berachos 10a.
[xi] See Sefer haChinuch # 42.
[xii] See Psalms 145:9.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.