In a stunning explanation of the laws of tzara’at – a virulent skin disease (Leviticus 13 and 14) – Maimonides argues that the purpose of the affliction is not punishment, but education (Guide of the Perplexed, Book 3, Chapter 47). Maimonides contends that the presentation of the laws as they appear in the Torah supports his view. In its initial appearance tzara’at infects the walls of an Israelite’s house. This serves as a heavenly sign that there is a pressing need for some corrective in the conduct of the owner of the house. Should the owner fail to pay attention to this sign and reform his evil ways, the affliction will next appear on the person’s clothing and bedding. It is only as a last resort that tzara’at will afflict the body.
The degree of severity or, alternatively, the ranking from least to most serious, is in inverse order. The laws of the infected house appear in Leviticus 14:33-53. The laws of infected clothing appear in Leviticus 13:47-59. And the laws of the infected person appears in Leviticus 13: 1-46. Maimonides is saying that the worst manifestation of the disease is mentioned first but comes last and the least intensive manifestation of the disease is mentioned last but appears first. The intention, it would seem, is to inform the people of the worst possible consequence of moral failure (the rabbis hold that this kind of skin disease is the punishment for slander) as a deterrent. But God, in His infinite mercy, will apply it only as a last resort.
As a philosopher, Maimonides is struck by the principle the text implies. God wants human beings to live exemplary lives. Sadly, however, human beings often fall short. But failure is not immediately fatal. God provides opportunities for change; for rehabilitation. Sometimes wrongdoers do not exploit the opportunity to change so God motivates them through a sign. Tzara’at is a palpable reminder of what might result when a person persists in error. Rather than looking at affliction as a punishment, the afflicted should look at it as encouragement to desist from doing what is wrong and find the way back to God.