Text Based Learning

The Birth Pangs of the Mashiach (Messiah)
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Wednesday 26th March 2014

by Rabbi Gavin Broder, London Region University Chaplain

Parashat Tazria opens with laws following childbirth. The months of pregnancy may very well be a difficult time for the expectant mother. Walking could become demanding, sleep may be disturbed, she may be affected by extreme heat and there may be a constant worry as to whether the foetus will grow into a healthy child. Only once the child is born can there be a deep, heartfelt joy permeating throughout the house.

The period leading to the coming of the Mashiach (Messiah) is referred to as chevlei Mashiach - ‘birth pangs of the Messiah’ - and is compared to the period leading up to the birth of a child. In the same way that the expectant mother’s pain increases as she gets closer to giving birth, so the period leading to the arrival of Mashiach may be a difficult one for the Jewish People. This theme is echoed later on in Parashat Tazria: the sidrah also details the laws relating to an individual who has been afflicted with a disease called tzara’at, which resembles leprosy. Following inspection by a Kohen, a person who has contracted tzara’at is quarantined and sent outside the city limits until he/she is cured. The verses detail a strange anomaly. A person who has a relatively small white patch, indicating tzara’at, is confined. Yet the Torah says that “If the tzara’at will erupt on the skin… from his head to his feet… and the Kohen shall look… he shall declare the affliction to be pure…” (Vayikra 13:12-13). This means that a person whose entire body changes colour is considered ‘pure’ and is not sent outside the city. This seems strange. Logic would dictate that if a small white patch renders a person ‘afflicted’, then if the entire body is discoloured, the person should surely have the disease! Why is this not the case?

The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz d.1619) posits that tzara’at is not a natural illness; rather it is a spiritual one which affects an individual who has erred. The purpose of tzara’at is to awaken him/her to repent the sin committed. Consequently, if the tzara’at manifests itself as a small affliction, the inflicted person needs to be sent outside the camp as part of the punishment so as to arouse contemplation. However, someone whose body is entirely afflicted will automatically realise their error and needs no further punishment.

The Kli Yakar quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) which states that there is a (minority) view that “the son of King David [Mashiach] will not come until the entire kingdom has descended towards heresy”. The Talmud in fact relates this to our verse (ibid) “All of it has turned white, it is pure”. The same way that a person whose entire body is afflicted will repent, so too Mashiach will come when the world has reached such depths that the Jewish people realise they have to change their ways.