This week we read about the unusual ailment called tzara’at. We will see that the cohen has a pivotal role in healing the person thus afflicted. This appears to be in keeping with the general theme of the beginning of the book of Vayikra, that the Midrash names Torat Hacohanim, the Law of the Cohanim. We see throughout that it is the cohen who brings the sacrifices and is active in the daily functioning of the Beit Hamikdash.

Thus it is appropriate that the cohen is instrumental in both determining and removing the tzara’at from the Jewish people. However, when we analyze the exact role of the cohen in the entire process we will see that he does not actually remove the tzara’at, rather, he has a more subtle task.

To understand this we need to consider what tzara’at is and how it comes and goes.

Tzara’at is sometimes translated as leprosy and appears to be a skin affliction. However it is different to other skin diseases that we know as the diagnosis is performed by the cohen. The cohen also accompanies the entire healing process as related in the Torah portion of Tazria.

“When a man has a discoloration on his skin he will be brought to the Aharon the Cohen or to one of his descendants. The cohen will see the mark on his skin, if the hair has turned white and the look of the mark is deeper than the skin it is tzara’at, and the cohen will see him and declare him impure. If it is not deeper than the skin and the hair has not turned white, the cohen shall send him to isolation for seven days. On the seventh day the cohen will examine him, if the mark has not changed and has not spread the cohen will isolate him for a further seven days. On the seventh day the cohen will check him if it has not spread then the cohen will declare him pure” (Vayikra 13:2-6).

There is a whole procedure for determining whether the person has been affected with the disease or not. It involves the cohen checking him and possibly a certain period of isolation. If a person does have tzara’at he is isolated until it passes and then has to undergo a purification process also described in detail in the Torah.

The only person that can determine whether someone has tzara’at or not and whether they are tahor or tamei is a cohen. “Even though anyone can check the marks, only a cohen can declare whether they are pure or impure. How? If the cohen is not an expert, the expert sees the mark and tells the cohen ‘Declare it to be impure’ and the cohen says ‘Impure’, ‘Declare it to be pure’ and the cohen says ‘Pure’” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 9:2 based on Mishnah, Nega’im 3:1).

Thus we see that the entire process of tumah and taharah is dependent on the cohen.

This presents a problem in the story of Na’aman (see Melachim II 4:42-5:19) who turns to Elisha to be healed, as Elisha was not a cohen yet here he deals with tzara’at. Some explain this by pointing out that the status of the one afflicted with tzara’at is the jurisdiction of the cohen. But this is only when the person afflicted is Jewish. In the case of a non-Jew an expert can determine the status of the spots even if he is not a cohen. (See Yilkut Me’am Lo’ez on Melachim II 5:9)

However, the Mishnah clearly states that a non-Jew who contracts the disease does not become impure. (Nega’im 3:1) Na’aman did not come to Elisha in order that he should determine whether he was tahor or tamei. Rather he came to him to be cured. Na’aman never mentions purity or impurity, in fact it is Elisha who first raises the notion of taharah. “Your flesh will be healed and you will be purified”. However, the Targum translates the words “will be purified” as “will be healed”.

Na’aman seeks a remedy and so turns to Elisha. He assumes that the prophet will have some magic solution, that he will wave a wand and the tzara’at will be cured miraculously. Elisha teaches Na’aman that this is not the role of the prophet. Elisha cannot cure Na’aman, only Na’aman is capable of curing himself.

The cohen does not cure the person of tzara’at, the cohen declares that he is tamei. The person is then isolated and given seven days to consider his actions and the reason why he was smitten with tzara’at. If he returns to God he is healed and the cohen can declare him tahor. If not he is given another opportunity to cleanse himself and repent. (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10)

The role of the cohen is not to do wonders and miracles. The cohen’s task is to guide the people to serve God. If someone has veered from the straight and correct path, the cohen comes to direct him back. Without wonders, without miracles, just guidance and encouragement. The return to God has to be done by the individual; it cannot be done by the priest or the prophet.

This is the major difference between idolatry and service of God. Idolatry removes action from the worshipper to the priest. Judaism takes actions away from the leaders and clergy and gives them back to the individual and the people.

Elisha tells Na’aman that he does not need the prophet to be cured, he needs to isolate himself and immerse himself seven times in the Yarden. He does this and it cures him.

The prophet and the cohen are not there to free the people from action and to serve God for them. On the contrary, their role is to show the people how they can act to serve God. If we consider that tzara’at comes due to speaking evil and lashon hara we understand that the role of the cohen is not to atone for the person but to guide him to return to God and to mend his ways.The responsibility to change for the better lies in the hands of each and every person. We cannot rely on the religious leaders to change us, only to direct us to change ourselves.