Tazria-Metsorah: Deeply at ease

It’s the dreaded double Torah portion, the one that no bar/bat mitzvah wants: Purity and impurity, childbirth and leprosy, arcane rituals of purification.

So naturally the young man who is celebrating bar mitzvah tonight and tomorrow read the parashah (portion) thoughtfully and carefully, and in the end taught me some entirely new ways of looking at it.

Here’s what I brought to begin the discussion: First of all, forget “leprosy”; tsara’at is not the medical problem today called Hansen’s Disease. It’s a collection of problems that can break out in skin, in clothes, or in houses.

And forget “purity” and “impurity,” “cleanliness” and “uncleanness.” The ancient Israelites understood that God’s presence was in their midst in a very intense way, in the mishkan (Port-a-Temple) in the desert and then again in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was like there was a high-voltage wire connecting heaven and earth, and you had to keep the earthly end safely grounded. If you touched it with your own “insulation” compromised, you could be the conduit for a dangerous outflux (is that a word?) of holy energy into the community. So if you’d recently had a physical experience related to birth, death, sex, or certain types of illness, you were in a state of tum’ah, which is best translated I think as “not safe to be around holy energy.” The passage of time and certain actions could restore you to the state of taharah, “safe to be around holy energy.” You can see why translators use “clean/unclean” or “pure/impure” — but those aren’t the right translations. (See R. Phyllis Berman’s insight about tahor and tamey here.)

So these afflictions called tsara’at have two things in common: They get in the way of connecting with holy energy, and they can be either superficial (in which case it only looks like tsara’at but isn’t) or deep, in which case strong measures are called for.

Tsara’at can afflict your body (Lev. 13:1-46), your clothes (Lev. 13:47-59), or your house (Lev. 14:33-53; see summary Lev. 14:54-57). Each of these is one of the things we live in. Our bodies are our earthly homes, the place where “self” lives. We live in our clothes — sometimes we hide in our clothes — we express ourselves through our clothes. And our houses are, obviously, our homes as well: we live, we hide, we express ourselves there too. We can even hide in our bodies, you know.

When you suspected that you had an outbreak of tsara’at, you didn’t go to the doctor, the dry cleaner, or call in the mold specialists. You went to the priest. The priest’s job was to determine whether the outbreak was truly tsara’at, or only superficially resembled it.

If the disturbance was only skin-deep, if it faded after washing, if it was just growing on the surface of the wall or could be removed by scraping the plaster and replacing the stones, then it was your ordinary, garden-variety mold, mildew, scar, rash, etc. These things were a bother but didn’t disturb the fabric of your life.But tsara’at, by definition, disturbed things on a deep level. It went below the surface of the skin, or spread to encompass every bit of the skin’s surface. In cloth, it looked the same after washing, and it grew from week to week. It sunk into the wall, and returned after cleaning and scraping of the affected area.

If you had tsara’at in your body, you also had to change your clothing and your home. You tore your clothes, let your hair get dishevelled, covered your upper lip (how?), and moved outside the camp. Returning to community required a blood-and-living-animal ritual (want to read it? Lev. 14), and then you washed your clothes, shavee, and bathed (Lev. 14:8). You’d move outside your tent for 7 days, shave and wash again, and move back home; on the 8th day you’d bring a regular kind of offering (see Lev. 14:9).

Clearly there’s a teaching here. I don’t quite know what it is yet. Something about our need to live deeply at ease in our bodies, our clothes, and our homes. (Clothes = how we reveal and conceal ourselves to others; homes = family relationships.) Something about how we need to distinguish between superficial interruptions and deeper problems which need to be addressed over the longer-term. Something about not diagnosing yourself, about reaching outside for added perspective. And something about the need to honor the disruptions we’ve had to live with even as we return to our restored relationships and our “regular” daily life, rather than just diving in as if nothing had ever happened to us.

Those deep problems — the ones that disrupt our relationship with ourselves, that affect how we present ourselves to others, and that can cause “bad spots” in our relationships with our family — have something to do with being cut off from the flow of “holy energy.” (I feel like I’m channelling R. Art Wascow here, and I’m sure he would instantly see what I’m trying to say. It’s not so clear to me.) Rashes and skin problems are small examples of the kind of auto-immune problems that both cause stress and are usually exacerbated by stress. Stress is not only about what’s going on in our lives at any given moment, but about how we respond to it. (Sylvia Boorstein was the first teacher whom I heard say: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.) So…

I think that kedushah (holiness) is all about relationship. Holy energy flows in relationship. So when our relationships get disrupted, we no longer feel comfortable fitting into the skin / clothes / home we live in. Then it’s time to step back and ask for help in figuring out how to renew our connection to the flow of kedushah energy, the give-and-take that gives us deep and meaningful connections where we live. Sometimes it’s something we can fix ourselves in the ordinary course of our lives. Other times it means taking time out, stepping away, trying on different ways of being (changing our clothes and our dwelling). But the goal is the same: to come home, to re-connect, to belong deeply where we live.

Shabbat Shalom.