This week’s double parsha deals with the affliction called tzara’at, usually translated as leprosy but clearly not the condition we know today as Hansen’s disease. One suggestion is that tzara’at may be impetigo, a contagious disease characterized by skin eruptions. Or it might not be a disease at all. After all, tzara’at affects not only people, but fabrics and houses as well, and nobody calls a kohen (priest) to treat a broken leg or a persistent cough.
But whatever tzara’at really is, what the Torah tells us is that it was the job of the kohen to examine suspicious skin lesions and determine whether the person was indeed afflicted with tzara’at. If that was the case, the person was rendered tamei, ritually impure, and quarantined until the lesions cleared up and the required purification rituals took place.
The Torah says, “The priest shall examine the affection in the skin of his body…when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.” In other words, no matter how severe the symptoms, it isn’t tzara’at unless and until the kohen says it is.
The Mishna in Nega’im, which deals with the laws of tzara’at, says, “A person [i.e., a kohen] may examine all tzara’at symptoms except for his own. Rabbi Meir says he may not even examine the symptoms of his relatives.” This makes perfect sense — it’s hard to imagine a kohen willingly declaring himself tamei, but if he had an obnoxious brother-in-law…well, enough said.
In Mayanah shel Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman brings this explanation: “A man can immediately see the faults of others, but not his own, and he finds the faults of strangers more readily than those of his own kin.”
This certainly has the ring of truth. Nobody likes criticism, and that includes self-criticism. Many people look in the mirror and see, if not perfection, surely an excellent and superior creature.
But not always. It’s also possible that the kohen is not permitted to examine his own symptoms because he is more likely to see faults in himself than in other people. Just think of the young women with eating disorders who starve themselves because they look in the mirror and see rolls of fat that aren’t there. There are people who cannot accept compliments. Tell them that they did something well, and they will point out at least three flaws in whatever it was that they did.
Still, the rabbinic commentators think that the first case — that a person cannot see his own faults — is the rule, and so they derive some good, practical advice from it.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of Shnei Luhot Habrit, comments on the verse: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” He notes that it is possible to understand the prescribed declaration as “an impure person calls out ‘impure.’” That is, a person who finds fault with others is really projecting his own faults and imperfections on them. As the sages have said (Kiddushin 70a), “One criticizes in others the fault that he himself possesses.”
In Growth Through Torah, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes, “One means of finding your own faults and blemishes is to see what faults you tend to notice in others. If you focus on certain negative aspects of others, it is possible that you have these same tendencies yourself.”
So are people more likely to ignore or to magnify their own imperfections? I’m not sure, but my guess is that at different times in our lives we have all done each of them. But one thing is certain — very few people are capable of evaluating themselves objectively. We are simply not capable of seeing ourselves clearly.
So when other people criticize you or when they compliment you, don’t dismiss what they say out of hand. Listen and at least entertain the possibility that they just may be seeing what you cannot.