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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Light Within. A Commentary on Parshat Tazria-Metzora

This week we read the double parashah (portion) of Tazria-Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1-15:33). These two parshiot dealing with issues of skin afflictions, purity and holiness.  The beginning of the parashah describes how Aaron and his sons, the cohanim/priests, are assigned the duty of examining people with tzara'at/skin afflictions both to determine the extent of the affliction and when they are healed.  While afflicted, the person must remain outside the camp. Once declared to be healed they may return to the community. 

The classic rabbinic interpretation of tzara'at is that it is the result of some type of moral or spiritual "impurity" or immoral actions.  In fact, metzorah (the one suffering from the disease) is read by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra, one who one who slanders another's name. Therefore, one who slanders or gossips is punished with this affliction. 

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 on it was a common belief that everything was either a punishment or reward from God. Disease and illness were no exception.

However, the Hassidic master 
Sefat Emet provides us with an alternative interpretation. His interpretation is a powerful metaphor for how we bring distress upon ourselves by closing ourselves off the Divine and the spiritual life.

Sefat Emet begins his commentary by focusing on the simple verse "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore ..." (Leviticus 13:1-2). He makes the link between the Hebrew word 'or (עור), beginning with the letter "ayin", meaning skin, and 'or (אור), beginning with the letter "aleph," which means light. There is a  tradition within Judaism, especially within the mystical schools, that focuses on the belief that originally humanity existed in a purely spiritual form and were clothed in "garments of light." However, after the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were then clothed in "garments of skin" ('or'). At that moment, humans realized, as we read in Genesis, that they were naked. They became truly corporeal beings.

From the moment  human being knew the difference between good and evil, human beings were then split, as it were, into beings consisting  of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element. The spiritual, represented by the garment of light, still exists but it is covered by the garment of skin only to "shine through" at specific moments.

That is why, according to the
Sefat Emet, Moses' face glowed upon returning from Mt Sinai. For after encountering God "face to face, his inner light was able to shine through his corporeal skin." Sefat Emet believes that all of Israel was ready to achieve that state at Sinai, but that they (read: we) did not remain on that high rung of the spiritual ladder for very long.

Due to human nature, we all experience various degrees of spiritual affliction.  What happens when we are afflicted spiritually is that the light is unable to shine through. Normally this spiritual light is able to shine through the skin through the pores. However,
Sefat Emettzara'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 the sufferer must be examined and then purified by Aaron and his sons, who are the arbiters of holiness and "purity" on behalf of God.
believed that "sin clogs up those pores, so that 'darkness covers the earth' (Isaiah 60:2)" and that is why the skin affliction of
Though this text still maintains the duality of the spiritual and the physical realms,  it still has a profound message for us today. For the text reminds us that we all possess an inner spiritual core. It is an essential piece of being human. It is the divinity within and a reminder that we are all one with divinity. It is not that the spiritual piece is something that we must seek to find "out there in the world." Rather, it is something that we must seek to 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, as well as others, which is why we Moses wore a veil over his face after the Sinai encounter. Yet, when used properly our spirit, or soul, can warm and enlighten us. It is something that must be treated with respect and kept in balance. According to the Sefat Emet, we will
not all be able to have our spiritual light shine through until the Messianic Era arrives. That is when, metaphorically, the whole world will be prepared to accept God's "sovereignty."

Until that time arrives, we must do our best to maintain a sense of spiritual balance that will allow the light to shine through. This is not done by denying our corporeal nature, but by realizing that it is through the use of body and mind that our inner divine spirit is made manifest in the world. We can in some way radiate a modified light of God from within by acting, thinking, and speaking in a holy way. However, in the times when we find it is difficult to act in a holy way, in the moments when we instead allow our ego, our desires and our petty jealousies take control, and then we become closed off to the divine spirit within.

Judaism provides us many ways for us to re-open ourselves so that we can find balance, bring holiness into the world and allow our light to shine forth.  Through prayer, meditation, study, acts of
gemilut hasadim/loving kindness and tzedakah/righteousness we can regain that inner balance, return to our divine source and allow the inner light of the soul to shine through. That is how we "purify" ourselves, in contemporary terms.

Doing the spiritual work needed to open ourselves up to God  begins by simply paying attention to where we are in the moment. It requires nothing more than noticing our thoughts and feelings and accepting them as part of who we are. That way, we can hopefully avoid reacting to the thoughts and feelings we might normally label as "negative." For it is the reactions to those thoughts that pull us away from the Divine and get us caught up in our ego. This is what closes us off to the divine light of the spirit.

Instead of reacting out of habit, we simply need to act with intention. We need to notice those thoughts and feelings that we are tempted to label as "negative" or "bad" and wait for them to dissipate. We don't need to give them any more energy than that. Then, once they have dissipated,as they eventually will, (even if they do try to come back a few times) we can be in the present and allow ourselves to act with intention and in a holy way.

If this doesn't work, and we allow ourselves to be drawn in by our ego, and our tendency to judge our thoughts, ourselves, or others, then we simply wait until we notice this. At that moment, we will recognize that we have closed ourselves off to the inner light of the spirit. Instead of berating ourselves for that, we need to do what I described above. We simply need to acknowledge who and where we are at that moment, let the thoughts and feelings pass and know that at each moment we have the ability to open ourselves up to God and our inner Divine light. That is the beauty of acknowledging that the light is always in us, even when everything seems dark. It reminds us that the darkness will not last forever and that we simply need to live our lives one moment at a time. For if we do that then we cannot help but know that the moment will arrive when we will once again open ourselves up to God. Patience is the key to unlocking our souls and opening our hearts so that the inner light will shine forth.

With the blessing of patience, and paying attention to all that unfolds in each moment, each of us can eventually bring God's light into the world. In that way we can bring healing and purification to ourselves and to the world. May we use this Shabbat - and every day - to work on opening ourselves up so that the light of the spirit can shine through, bringing peace, salvation and wholeness to our

lives and to our fractured world.

Shabbat Shalom,


Eish Tamid said...

Toda for this! I was blessed to come across this! Shabbat Shalom!

Lucho Velez said...

...illuminating reading! Thank you.

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