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 or slander. The idea that a physical affliction is an external manifestation of an internal flaw or impurity may seem anathema today. It reminds us too much of those who state that AIDS or other diseases are a punishment for "immorality." However, in ancient times it was a common belief that everything, including disease, was either a punishment or reward from God.
However, the Hassidic commentator the Sefat Emet provides us with an alternative. His interpretation is a powerful metaphor for how we bring distress upon ourselves by closing ourselves off from the Divine and spiritual living. He begins his commentary by focusing on the phrase "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore..." (Vayikra 13:1-2).
From the moment Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil, human beings then consisted of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element. More than that, they realized this reality. As the inheritors of this sacred myth, we can realize too that we are spiritual beings still cloaked in a garment of light, which is then covered by our corporeal being, the garment of skin. However, we can still find ways to allow the inner light to "shine through" at specific moments.
That is why, according to the Sefat Emet, the Torah tells us that Moses's face glowed upon descending Mt Sinai. For after he encounters 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. Our spiritual affliction brought about our downfall.
Due to human nature, we all experience various degrees of spiritual affliction. When we are afflicted spiritually, the garment of light is unable to shine through. The Sefat Emet believed that this spiritual light is literally able to shine through the pores in our skin. He also 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 into the ancient vernacular Aramaic as 'segiru/closing.' The affliction represents a closing of the pores and a closing off of the inner spiritual nature of the human being due to sin. Therefore, the Torah prescribes that we must be examined and then purified by Aaron and his sons, the arbiters of holiness, and the ones who can cleanse the people on behalf of God.
Though this text still separates the spiritual and the physical realms, I believe it has a profound message for us today. It reminds us that we all possess an inner spiritual core. It is an essential piece of being human. “Spirituality” is not 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 can serve to hide this spiritual self, but it can also serve 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. This is why 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, a time when we will all discover our connection to the Divine in the world.
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. We can do this through prayer, meditation, study, acts of gemilut hasadim/loving kindness and tzedakah /righteousness. We can also do this by mindfully performing our everyday acts such as eating and sexual activity. We can regain that inner balance, return to our divine source and allow the inner light of the soul to shine through, if we are mindful of the divinity inherent in all we do and say. That is how we "purify" ourselves, in contemporary terms.
Doing the spiritual work needed to open ourselves up to God involves often begins with simply paying attention to where we are in the moment. It can require 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 God 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 don't need to give our ego and our judgmental selves any more energy. If we do this, the thoughts and passions rooted in the ego will eventually dissipate. And then, 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, our tendency to judge, or allowing our passions and desires to drive us then we simply wait until we notice this. At that moment, we recognize that we have closed ourselves off to the inner light of the spirit. Then, instead of berating ourselves for that, we need to do what I described above. We simply need to follow the path described above so the thoughts and feelings will pass and we can once again open ourselves up to God and our inner divine light.
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, healing and wholeness to our lives and to our fractured world.