Yuck, skin disease! This has been the cry of many a bar and bat mitzvah student when informed that this week’s Torah portion will be their Torah reading on their big day. I empathize with them, for I have had the same reaction in preparing this column. But as is so often the case with the Torah (and with skin disease), to get to the root of understanding, you have to go below the surface.
Tazria-Metzora is actually two Torah portions combined into one by the necessities of the Hebrew calendar. The chapters deal with the biblical affliction known as tzara’at, a term that has no English equivalent. The term is often mistranslated as “leprosy,” though it seems to be related to psoriasis, a common skin condition that causes skin redness and irritation in about 3 percent of the population.
When we look deeper at this week’s portion(s), we begin to see a clearly discernible pattern in what the Torah calls the tzara’at-afflicted person. What begins as something relatively incidental to the person becomes something all-consuming and completely identified with the person.
“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration … if the eruption spreads out over the skin … if [the affliction] appears to go deeper than the skin … he is a leprous man, he is unclean. ... He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him ...” (Leviticus 13:2-45).
The person has become his or her illness. How often have we experienced this, in ourselves or in others? A person becomes so consumed by his ailment — physical, emotional, spiritual — that it defines him.
We go from being a person, to a person with cancer, to a chemo patient, to being in remission, to (God willing) a cancer survivor or, most sadly, a cancer victim. It is the same for one who has lost a job, divorced, lost a home, or any of the myriad modern-day afflictions. Those things need not and should not define us. We are, our tradition informs us at the moment of our creation, adam; we are a human being created in God’s image.
Maimonides, in his Laws of Tzara’at-Induced Impurity 16:10, describes a different progression, but one that leads to an important related insight. He explains tzara’at as a divine warning message, imploring its victim to soul-search, to look deeper inside himself than what is seen when he looks in the mirror (what is only skin deep). In Maimonides’ progression, the affliction would start by affecting the house, then furniture, clothing and, finally, the body itself. Here, too, there is a movement from the periphery to the center of the victim’s existence.
It is important to note that the role of the priest in biblical times was not to cure the disease; rather, his charge was to diagnose and then quarantine the person from the community. The priest would send him out of the camp for a set period of time, checking on him from time to time, but not allowing him back in until the affliction had naturally subsided. Then an elaborate procedure of sacrifices is initiated to thank God for being restored to full health.
At first this may appear to be betraying the limits of biblical medicine, but, as we have learned, we have to go deeper to find the greater lesson. The question that arises is what happened to the person during the quarantine that cleared up the affliction? And why was it necessary for that healing to take place outside the camp?
One thing we know from our own experiences with becoming consumed by our ailments and afflictions is that emotional and spiritual healing requires perspective. Both progressions of tzara’at — the one in the Torah and the one in Maimonides — describe a process by which one must identify and accept something about himself or herself before a healing can begin. You have to acknowledge the affliction before you can begin to confront it. The ailment is not only physical; it is also psycho-emotional — being defined by our present circumstance (illness, job loss, etc.). As such, it follows that treatment begins with acknowledging that painful fact, what 12-step programs refer to as Step One.
There is no better place to gain perspective on your afflictions than to surround yourself with others similarly afflicted. That is why the priest sent the tzara’at outside the camp — to find perspective and solidarity in those who similarly suffer. When our affliction is no longer unique to us, but shared by others who are travelers on the same road, we cannot define ourselves by it. In that moment, we are are forced to look deeper, beyond how we appear to others, because it is not distinct, and begin to confront how we appear to ourselves. Then healing can begin, and then we are more than our disease —and much more than our skin becomes clear.