by Esther Kohn
You gotta love Leviticus. Bodily fluids, pus, sores, rashes, discoloration, fungus, ah the list goes on. I was lucky enough to select April 25 to offer a d’var torah. This year, as in most non-leap years, it’s a double header, not just one parsha but two, two wonderful parshot, Tazria and Metzora, that describe everything you wanted to know about skin affliction and more. Challenging, yes. And I will rise to it. I have to admit that the detail overwhelmed me, I will not go into to every description of various skin ailments and whether or not they represents purity or impurity. I will give a brief glimpse into the world of tzara-at, skin affliction, and offer some thoughts on how these parshot might apply to us and our world. Tazria describes the purification period after childbirth and prescribes the priestly offering that restores the mother to purity. It also describes how to deal with skin afflictions: namely, call the priest, he will diagnosis it, and determine how to proceed. Depending on the symptoms, the priest declares the person pure or impure. The person is isolated, then checked again after a period of time. The last part of the parsha describes how a garment might carry tzara-at, too, and how the priest deals with that by having it washed and even burned if it is deemed impure. Moving on to Metzora…Metzora is translated as leper but it does not really describe someone with Hanson’s disease, what we know today as leprosy. My understanding is that it is someone who has tzara-at. The parsha describes the steps the priest must take to purify the metzora. As in previous parsha, this involves various offerings and rituals, including live birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, hyssop, sacrificing animals, and touching oil to the ear, thumb and toe of the afflicted one. Houses are included in possible targets of tzara-at – the priest is again the one to diagnose it. The priest has to see what color it is, whether it can be scraped, or actual stones need to be removed and taken to an impure area, sort of a biblical toxic waste dump. In the worst case scenario, the whole house must be burned. This reminded me of our contemporary affliction of mold which is a bear – this might be a more effective solution. The last part of the parsha details how various bodily functions can make someone impure. All of these scenarios deal with “tumah” which can be translated as ritual impurity, a difficult concept in our contemporary world. Tumah can occur in these circumstances: Contact with a dead body, being afflicted with a skin condition (tzara-at), contact with bodily emissions that have to do with generating life (menstrual blood, semen), women who have just given birth. If you are associated with tumah you can not enter the sanctuary. Now it seems strange that these are such natural occurances, part of being human, and yet they are considered impure. But ritual impurity is not necessarily negative. Eitz Hayim has an interesting commentary on this. These are life cycle events – birth, creating life, recovering from illness, death—they all are miraculous in their own way. Perhaps deeming them ritually impure was not a punishment or banishment, but an acknowledgement of a natural kind of holiness that was different from the holiness to be found in a sanctuary. We are given a structure for contact with God in a sanctuary but during these notable events we often have a spiritual experience that is holy unto itself. I’ve never given birth or attended one but I can imagine that experiencing that or witnessing must be a miraculous experience. As is witnessing a death. Or recovering from a serious illness. In these parshot, the priest must be notified when there is a Tzara-at, a person afflicted with a skin disease. The person is carefully checked, attended to, diagnosed. He or she must be isolated from the community. And then the priest goes through a series of rituals to bring the person back to the community. Tazria and Metzora began to significant meaning for me once I acknowledge the importance of bringing someone back into the community who has been isolated. It brings to mind important questions such as What actions or conditions cause an individual to be isolated from our community today? What can we do to restore that person to the community? How many of us have struggled with an affliction, whether it is mental, physical, or spiritual, and have felt isolated, at a loss of how to let others know, not to mention make our way back to others, to connection, to community? Sometimes we stay connected to others but hide the afflicted part of ourselves, the part that feels impure. Many of us feel it is up to us to figure out what is wrong with us and in the middle of an illness or struggle it is difficult to ask for help or figure out what we need. This past year, we have learned a lot about people’s experience of isolation, affliction, and healing through the Torah of Chesed. A working group has been exploring what people’s experience of Chesed has been at Dorshei Tzedek. Part of this process involved one-on-one conversations with people who have dealt with life events such as birth, physical illness, and death, as well as experiences that are less easily categorized, challenges for which we have not created rituals. Although physical illness and death are never easy, we have rituals that help each other move through these painful times. But with things like divorce, mental illness, or dealing with a learning disability, it can be tricky to figure out what we do as a community. How do we balance support with respecting boundaries around privacy? When is it helpful to acknowledge someone is struggling and when is it hurtful? While we realize we can not take away each other’s pain, we are a community and want to acknowledge that we all struggle with these challenges in a variety of ways and want to be sure that people feel they can be part of the community no matter what is happening in their lives – with warts and all. We are all tzara-at at different times in our lives. I’d like to end with a teaching that I found on the JRF site in a d’var by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan. He describes how the Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet, interpreted these parshot. He used a play on words to find a spiritual message in Tazria and Metzora. The word skin in Hebrew is “or” but begins with the letter ayin, you can find it on p. 652. The word “or” also means light, but this word begins with aleph. The Sefat Emet taught that we began as beings with garments of light, that is, Adam and Eve were clothed in garments of light until they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Then they were clothed in garments of skin. We still wear these two garments. Our spiritual self is our garment of light, and it is covered by our corporeal self, covered by skin. We let our spiritual self shine through in moments, the more spiritual balance we have in our lives, the more our radiance shines through. And it shines through our pores. But if we are stressed, if we are unbalanced, if we are struggling, we close off this light. And our pores close, causing a state of tzara-at. In ancient times Aaron and his sons, the priest, would diagnose this and help us purify. But now it is up to us, to discover our spiritual core, and how to bring this light out into the world. To let our light shine through. How do we open up the pores to let our spiritual selves through? Perhaps through prayer, mediation, and acts of lovingkindness. May our garment of light shine through.