Lashon Hakodesh is a holy tongue with profound meaning. There is a deep connection between words that share the same letters even if, on the surface, the words may appear to be entirely dissimilar. For example, let us examine the words, oneg and nega. Oneg represents a form of spiritual perfection that is expressed as pleasure. Interestingly enough it is spelled with same three letters as the word nega – the ultimate antonym of oneg. Nega refers to the symptom of the lowest form of spiritual corruption – tzara’as, which was a spiritual/physical affliction which required its sufferers to be banished from the camp of Israel.
Oneg and nega, joy and sorrow, undergo surprising transmutations within the diagnosis and treatment of tzara’as. The difference between oneg and nega lies in the position of the letter ayin, whose migration from the front of the word to the back, spells the difference between joy and suffering. It is no coincidence that the ayin is not only a letter but also is a word that describes our organ of sight – the eye. The Torah admonishes us not to follow our eyes because they can mislead us. In the diagnosis of tzara’as, as in our own introspective techniques, it is only true spiritually guided vision that is reliable.
The kohen, who is imbued with spiritual sight, is the only one who could look at a blemished area and determine whether it was pure or contaminated. Thus, when the Torah speaks about a change in the colors of blemished garments, and dictates which change indicates that purification is taking place, the word “eino” is used to describe the color. This word too is composed of the same root letters as is the word for eye. Even the inexperienced will notice that it is this same ayin, whose position in the words oneg and nega makes the difference between joy and sorrow that now is the herald of a change of color – a change of spirit.
The Ramban taught us that the afflictions of tzara’as are miraculous in that they never occur naturally. When we lived in Eretz Israel and conducted ourselves according to Hashem’s wishes, there was always a radiant shine of holiness upon us. As individuals began to sin, this physical shine disappeared and the tzara’as began to show in their homes, their garments and on their persons.
The ayin of oneg and nega reflects the All Seeing Eye before Whom all conduct and all motivation is transparent and all spiritual blemishes, visible. In this setting, only the acknowledgment of error in attitude and actions begins the cleansing process.
The diagnosis and treatment of tzara’as when it appears on a Jew is illustrative of this point. When the tzara’as covered the entire portion of the sufferer’s skin – the affliction was declared to be pure and the person was not isolated. However, when it began healing and the healthy skin appeared on it, that was when the person was declared to be a metzora and the quarantine, the declaration of contamination and the entire process of purification would begin (Vayikra 13:14-15).
This seeming contradiction is explained by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He points out that the purpose of the quarantine is to shock the metzora into recognizing his sinfulness and doing teshuva. However, teshuva is only possible when there is some “healthy” submissiveness to the will of Hashem. When the moral corruption is so complete that submissiveness is totally lacking, then quarantine will not help the person move toward change and there is no point in isolating him. He or she is beyond redemption.
Nonetheless, this individual is not completely abandoned but is chastised in a different but equally effective manner. Although actually afflicted with tzara’as, unlike his fellow sufferers, he is ignored. He may thereby experience a terrible spiritual/emotional isolation and a sense of being cut off because there is no social structure in place to help him towards confession and teshuva. However, if and when this silent admonition prompts him to do teshuva, some healthy skin will appear as evidence of this change of heart and then isolation will help him towards the complete teshuva process.
Tzara’as classically was a punishment for the sin of lashon hara which is the tool of the skeptic. The skeptic moves from oneg to a self-imposed state of nega by casting a baleful eye upon those around him or her. Consequently, to reverse that process, the individual must change his or her way of seeing the world which can be achieved by judging the person or situation in a favorable light.
The blessing of experiencing oneg is a gift that comes through living humbly and righteously realizing that life is an opportunity for proper service in avodas Hashem at all stages, levels and experiences. Every event in life has deep meaning and positive purpose even if we cannot immediately see its relevance or value. The lens of the Torah transforms negative perceptions into positive outlooks. When we view life through this lens, we are able to see all of creation as emanating from the Divine will. From this perspective we can then merit the true bliss of oneg.