April 2007 | Iyyar 5767
This week’s parashah presents a number of conditions that, in ancient times, were seen to render a person “tamei,” a word usually translated as “contaminated” or “impure.”
Particularly puzzling is the case of the metzora, a person suffering from the mysterious skin disease of tzara’at (which will later afflict Miriam when she speaks of Moses in a dishonoring way). A person so diagnosed by the priest would be required to go into a kind of mourning, tearing her clothing, shaving her head, and calling out, “Tamei, tamei, contaminated, contaminated!” He or she would be sent to dwell in isolation outside the camp until the affliction resolved itself. A priestly purification ritual would mark the person’s reintegration into the community.
The great modern Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz poses the question: why, when there are so many physical and spiritual challenges in life, does Torah make a point of teaching us how to combat this particular disease? As the beginning of an answer, Professor Leibowitz cites Midrash emphasizing that, in each suspected case of tzara’at, there is a waiting period of seven days, from initial signs to diagnosis.
The rabbinic commentators interpret this gradual, progressive onset as a sign of Divine grace; through these symptoms, a person is being put on notice by HaShem that he is out of balance. More specifically, the Sages point to the word metzora as a contraction of “motzi ra,” a person who “brings out the bad,” by speaking ill of another. They interpret the swellings, scabs, or shiny patches embossed upon the skin as physical manifestations of spiritual imbalance and ethical failure.
How is tzara’at cured? Torah tells us only that the sufferer is to be quarantined, sent into isolation. But we’re not told what the metzora does out there, beyond the pale of communal life. Does she fast and pray, weep and repent, take homeopathics, soak in Aveeno baths, use ointments and salves, do yoga? Or does she simply sit quietly, watch the changing light, listen to the wind, and wait for a sea change?
I find it significant Torah’s prescription for a disease that disturbs the integrity of skin is separation. Skin itself is both a separator and a connector. Like clothing, vessels, and houses, each of which could also become infected with tzara’at, skin serves as a defining boundary, differentiating inner from outer. In my experience, the everyday stresses of familial relationships, raising children, earning a living, and participating in community life often compromise our boundaries. When I’m flooded with information, when I’ve ingested more food or imagery or emotions than my systems can process, both my physical and my energetic skins express the distress. I become “thin-skinned,” “leaky,” irritable, more likely to lash out at a loved one or to dishonor or simply ignore my fellow beings. I can’t distinguish what’s emotionally mine from what belongs to others. I become tamei, cut off from the sacredness of life.
At such times, the most useful spiritual practice I’ve yet found is to declare myself “contaminated!” and to remove myself to a space mikhutz la’makhaneh, outside the camp, whether for an hour’s hike in Wildcat Canyon or a several-day-long silent retreat. I rest the faculty of speech that can be so abused and give my “skins” the opportunity to regenerate themselves. Sometimes knowing when to exit, when to absent oneself, is the most spiritually powerful action one can take. Perhaps this is the deep torah of the metzora: that when our boundaries become leaky and compromised, it’s the Divine Presence, woven into our very structure (“…v’shokhanti b’tokham,” ..”and I will dwell within them”), that bubbles to the surface, from under our skins, guiding us onto the path of retreat and purification.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2007