The double parasha of Tazria-Metzorah opens with the birth of children, and then proceeds to describe the affliction called tzara’at. For a person who is afflicted with tzara’at, they must quarantine for seven days and then check again, an experience that hits all too close to home this year. The affliction causes lesions on the skin, on clothing, and on the walls of the house. The Kohanim are the medical practitioners with diagnostic expertise. The basic symptoms include depth of the lesion penetrating the skin, discoloration of the surface area and discoloration of hair growing from the affected area:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (13:2)
The Kohen checks for changes and spread of the lesion. The diagnoses sound as if they include what contemporary medical practice might consider to be macules, papules and plaques in terms of how deeply the lesion penetrated, how far it spread, whether it is scaly or not, and its color. The parasha considers a range of different kinds of cases, including balding spots and the effect of burns on the skin, as well as different colors of molds growing on walls or on cloth. It also seems that this condition of tzara’at is characterized by the experience of the transformation of the skin, because if a person’s entire body suddenly becomes covered completely, that person is not considered afflicted. Tzara’at is diagnosed only if there is contrast and change between the normative condition of the skin and the lesions erupting on the body:
If the lesion spreads out over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the affected person from head to foot, wherever the priest can see—if the priest sees that the condition has covered the whole body—he shall pronounce the affected person clean, tahor, because he has turned all white. But as soon as un-discolored flesh appears in it, he shall be unclean, tameh. (13:12-14)
The Torah also never describes tzara’at as a fatal condition, only one that renders the person or the cloth or the house tah-meh, ritually “impure.” When the condition heals, a ritual structures the afflicted individual’s re-entry into the community.
The ritual is fascinating and sheds more light on the fact that the Torah’s interest in tzara’at has less to do with the morphology of the disease and more with the way in which experiencing our own vulnerabilities and mortality affects us emotionally and spiritually. The ritual is described in Vayikra 14:3-20. Here is the first part of what the afflicted individual must undergo:
If the kohen sees that the leper has been healed…the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on the person who was afflicted… and then the kohen shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be tahor, “pure.” After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean.
This ritual is a birthing, re-creation ritual. There is a vessel of water, like the waters of creation, then mixed with blood, the liquid of life-energy. That mixture is reddened intensively, and then placed on a bird that then flies away, free. The mixture is sprinkled on the person who had been afflicted, so that the person’s freedom and renewed life-energy are vicariously represented by the bird in flight. The person then brings several animal and grain offerings as part of his/her cleansing. Part of that process includes the Kohen placing oil on the person’s right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe, and then finally, on the person’s head. These extremities remind one of the crowns on the altar, suggesting that the vulnerability of the person is mirrored by the vulnerability of the altar in God’s sanctuary. Frail and vulnerable, a person’s health actually affects the sanctuary and God’s ability to be present and close.
Feeling vulnerable, coming up against our own mortality, experiencing the trauma of a failing body, lie at the center of the Torah’s concerns in this parasha. Tzara’at may well have caused physical suffering, but the Torah is concerned with the process of restructuring a way to return to life filled with vitality and the feeling of balance, health, strength, and the awe associated with the mystery of being alive. One of the most compelling details for this explanation of tzara’at is the Torah’s description of what the afflicted person must do once he/she is diagnosed: As for the person with tzara’at, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (13:45) This is a description of what we still recognize as mourning practices. Essentially, the Torah is instructing the person to “sit shiva” for himself. Regarding the lost practice of “covering the upper lip,” Rashi explains explicitly that this is a mourning practice for the dead. Terrified of one’s own potential demise, the Torah structures a way to recognize, acknowledge and hold the emotional reality that the violation of one’s skin, our protective covering, makes one come precipitously close to their own death. In that regard, the walls of the house and clothing play the same protective role as our skin. They provide layers of protection and covering that hold and protect our inner life.
In the midrash Vayikra Rabbah 17:3, the rabbis name 10 behaviors that can cause tzara’at. This midrashic list of “causes” of tzara’at all relate to the pathology of a broken inner life. A very widely taught association is between tzara’at and leshon hara, “gossip and slander.” However, the midrash lists ten behaviors, with abusive and harmful language being only one of them. The midrash claims that one suffered from tara’at as a result of any of the following actions and their concomitant habits of mind:
Avodah zara, (idolatry) Gilui aryiot, (sexual abuse), Shefichut damim, (spilling innocent blood), Chilul Hashem, (undignified behavior), Birkat Hashem, (cursing God), Gozel et harabbim, (avarice at the expense of the community, like tax evasion), G’zelah, (theft), Gassey haRuach, (insensitivity to the needs of others), Leshon hara, (gossip and slander), and Ayin Hara (“evil eye,” dismissing the importance of another person).
All of these offenses transgress boundaries that protect people’s dignity, humanity, and sense of safety in the world. Additionally, they transgress the boundary between the human and the divine, boundaries that keep people humble and filled with awe acknowledging that there is a power and force beyond human beings to which people are responsible. This midrash teaches us that abusing people, in these many ways, is simultaneously an affront to God, which is probably why idolatry is the first offense that is somatized into a pathology that breaks the boundary between a person’s inner and outer self. Rather than causing tzara’at, perhaps the condition reveals something of the person’s inner life hurtful habits of mind, and destructive behaviors. The chart below suggests correlations between the transgressions that are revealed by tzara’at, the impact of those habits on our ability to form positive, relational connections to other people:
|The sin revealed by tzara’at||The wrong belief or value||How the sin affects people|
|Avodah zara, Worshipping an idol||There is not one source for humanity||Contentiousness|
|Gilui aryiot, Sexual abuse||Trust and loyalty are not sacred||Mistrust|
|Shefichut damim, Murder||Life is cheap||Loss of life|
|Chilul Hashem, behavior than diminishes God’s presence in the world||Lack of gratitude||Selfishness|
|Birkat Hashem, Cursing Hashem||Egocentrism||Arrogance|
|Gozel et harabbim, stealing from the community||I do not owe the country anything.||Avarice|
|G’zelah, Stealing||I take care of myself only.||Theft|
|Gassey haRuach,“Boorishness,” ex. Insensitivity||Other people’s feelings have nothing to do with me.||Mistrust|
|Leshon hara, Gossip and slander||Weaponize language.||Character assassination|
|Ayin Hara, “the evil eye,” = annihilate with a gesture||Diminish another||Fear|
Tzara’at, from this perspective, has a kind of biblical Dorian Grey quality. The more one violates boundaries that people rely on to protect and preserve each other’s dignity and sense of shared worth and needs, the more deeply lesions penetrate one’s metaphorical skin, clothing and walls. Here the role of the Kohen becomes especially significant. Diagnosing the condition enables future healing, balance and spiritual health. As Rabbi Meir taught: “A person cannot see the blemishes of his relatives just as he cannot see them in himself.” (Devarim Rabbah 6:8) The process of healing begins with looking inward, recognition, and naming one’s condition. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1802-1854, Poland, made this same point:
The Midrash Tanchuma 9, quotes Tehillim 5:5: “For You are not a God who desires evil/You cannot abide it.” This applies to the context of tzara’at, for [the human condition] starts with a lesion, precisely for the purpose of repairing the sins of the Jewish people in the future. [Our goal is to repair ourselves] because when the Jewish people [nullify their own desires and egos] and cleave to God, all wickedness (i.e. “lesions,” “nega’im”) will be excised. (Mei haShiloach, II, Tazria 4)
The healing and repair begins with the processes of diagnosis, of looking, of introspecting, of noticing, and of being willing to see one’s own blemishes.
If this interpretation of tazria-metzorah resonates, supported by a reasonable reading of sources, then the opening of tazria itself becomes especially prescient. Parashat Tazria opens with the description of childbirth, the bringing of new life into the world. After the birth of a child, the birthing mother must spend time alone, just herself and the newborn, and then requires a ritual structure to return to her pre-birthing life. The period of time is thirty-three days for the birth of a boy, and twice that for the birth of a girl. More time is allocated to the baby girl, perhaps, because that infant, too, will potentially bring new life into the world, and therefore the birthing of a girl is intensified. Nothing breaches boundaries like childbirth. Part of the woman literally leaves her body and emerges into this world, a new, independent life. The birth is a total opening of boundary, allowing the inner and outer worlds to merge, followed by a time of healing and repair. There was also a sense of loss, even mourning. Tazria-Metzorah, then is a Torah about our vulnerabilities, the importance of boundaries, and human health requiring ethical, moral and spiritual practices as well as food, exercise, and sleep. May we take this teaching to heart.