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Tzara'at and Impurity

This week's parashah, Tazria, is the first of two parshiot dealing with issues of skin afflictions, purity and holiness. Tazria (which in non-leap years is paired with the next parashah, Metzora) describes how Aaron and his sons, the cohanim/priests, are assigned the duty of examining people with tzara'at/skin afflictions to determine the extent of the affliction and when they are healed so that they can return to the camp, as they must remain outside the camp while afflicted.

The classic rabbinic interpretation of tzara'at is that it is the result of some type of moral or spiritual "impurity" or immoral actions, such as gossip (this is especially true of the interpretation of next week's parashah). The idea that a physical affliction is an external manifestation of an internal flaw or impurity is anathema today. It reminds us too much of those who state that AIDS or other diseases are a punishment for immorality. However, in Biblical times and even later later it was a common assumption that everything can be viewed as either a punishment or reward from God. Diseases and illnesses were no exception.

The Hassidic master, the Sefat Emet, provides us with an interpretation that is a powerful metaphor for how we close off ourselves from the spiritual thereby bringing distress to ourselves.

In commenting on the simple verse "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore" (Vayikra 13:1-2) the Sefat Emet makes the link between the Hebrew word for skin ('or', beginning with the silent letter ayin) and the word for light ('or', beginning with the silent letter aleph). There is a long tradition within Judaism, especially within the mystical schools, that focuses on the belief that originally Adam and Havah (Eve) were in a purely spiritual state and were clothed in "garments of light ('or')" but that after the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were then clothed in "garments of skin" ('or'), which they viewed as the skin of the serpent. The corporeal nature of humanity arrived from this. From that moment on human beings consisted of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element. The spiritual, represented by the garment of light, still existed but it was covered by the garment of skin only to "shine through" at specific moments and would not be seen in its full glory until the arrival of the Messianic Era.

That is why the Torah tells us Moses' face glowed upon descending Mount Sinai. His inner light was able to shine through his skin after he encountered God "face to face." Sefat Emet believed that all of Israel was ready to achieve that state at Sinai, but that they/we did not remain on that high rung of the spiritual ladder for very long. And so, due to human nature, we all experience various degrees of spiritual affliction. What happens when we are afflicted spiritually is that the garment of light is unable to shine through. Normally this spiritual light is able to shine through the skin through the pores. However, Sefat Emet believed that "sin clogs up those pores, so that 'darkness covers the earth' (Isaiah 60:2)" and that is why the skin affliction of tzara'at is translated in Aramaic (the ancient vernacular of the Jewish people) as segiru (closing). The tzara'at represents a closing of the pores and a closing off of the inner spiritual nature of the human being due to sin. And so the Torah prescribes that we must be examined and then purified by Aaron and his sons who are the arbiters of holiness and the ones who can cleanse the people on behalf of God.

Though this text still allows for a bifurcation of the spiritual and the physical realms I believe it has a profound message for us today. For in the reading of this text we come to realize that we all possess an inner spiritual core. It is an essential piece of being human. It is not that the spiritual piece is something that we must seek to find "out there in the world." But rather it is something that we must discover within ourselves. The skin hides this spiritual self, but it also serves to protect it. The spirit, being of Divine origin, is powerful and yet fragile. The power of its light can blind us and others, which is why we are told that Moses wears a veil over his face after the Sinai encounter. And yet when used properly it can warm and enlighten us. It is something that must be treated with respect and kept in balance. That is why it needs to be covered with skin until the Messianic Era arrives when, metaphorically, the whole world is prepared for the coming of God. And so, when we are in control of this sense of spiritual balance the light can shine through our skin. We can in some way radiate a modified light of God from within. However, if we are unable to keep the balance, if we do not allow enough of the light to shine through due to sinful or destructive behavior, then the pores become closed and the light is blocked. We must then work to open them up.

Judaism provides us many ways to do this. Through prayer, meditation and study, as well as through acts of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness) and tzedakah (righteousness) we can purify ourselves and allow the inner light of the soul to shine through. In many ways that is the goal of the entire system of mitzvot (commandments). They are a means (or at least some of them are) to open us up and allow the Divine light to shine through. That way we can bring God's light into the world and enable ourselves and others to bring healing and purification to the world as a whole. What seems like an entirely self-centered act then becomes part of the effort to repair the world for all of its inhabitants.

May we use this Shabbat - and every day - to work on opening ourselves up so that the garment of light can shine through and bring peace, salvation and wholeness to our lives and to our fractured world.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah