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Friday, April 27, 2012

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah: Beyond Skin Deep

This week we read the double parashah/portion of Tazria-Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1-15:33). The parashah introduces the various categories of tumah (ritual or spiritual “impurity”, for lack of a better word) emanating from human beings. The parashah describes in great detail the varying and numerous manifestations of the disease called tzara'at. 

Although it has been commonly mistranslated as leprosy, this disease has little resemblance to any bodily ailment transmitted through normal exposure. Rather, tzara'at appears to be some kind of growth that can occur on a house or on clothing (like mold or fungus) or on a person's body.
Tradition views the disease as being the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment from God primarily for the sin of speaking lashon hara (evil speech). Known as a metzora, someone afflicted by a tzaraat-like patch on their skin is subject to a series of examinations by a Kohen (high priest), who declares the patient to be either tahor (pure) or tamei (impure). If tamei, they are isolated outside of the camp until, upon inspection, the kohen declares them to be “pure.”

Traditional commentaries view this as an appropriate punishment for someone whose improper speech caused others to become separated from one another. Once the person is declared tahor (pure) by the kohen, the kohen then administers a three part purification process, complete with immersion in water, korbanot (offerings), and the shaving of the entire body.

The idea of God punishing a person with a physical ailment for the sin of gossip and speaking evil of others does not fit with my personal 21st century sensibilities. However, the idea that lahon ha'ra / evil speech can infect a person with a spiritual malady certainly rings true. But what about the isolation of the person from the camp? This punishment is reminiscent of the way lepers were treated in ancient times or the way that people with diseases such as HIV/AIDS have been ostracized and shunned by society in more recent times. Yet, I don't believe that is what the Torah meant.

As I wrote above, it makes sense that a person who has caused discord and separation within a family or a community by their speech be separated from others as a consequence. It is important to remember that the ultimate outcome is that they are declared tahor/pure, or ready to participate in the religious rituals of the community. That is precisely why they further purify themselves with immersion, make an offering to God and shave all their hair before they fully return. It is as if they are being born anew, rising from the waters of purification rather than the womb, skin smooth as the day they were born.

But how would the person feel going through this process? I can only imagine.


I am alone
how did I get here       I know the answer too well
I spoke      and hatred came into being
I spoke      and suffering entered the world
I spoke from a place of jealousy envy insecurity
and others were destroyed

now I am here    on my own    where I must       where I should be
here I can speak      but it cannot be heard
it cannot hurt        cannot destroy others       only me

I deserve    I need     to be here
to rid myself of the desire to decimate others through my words
to kill the part of me that wishes to murder others with my speech
to leave here    eventually    pure simple loving as the day I was born

I sit here surrounded    by emptiness desert desolation
no one here     but me and God
I want to  scream   cry   run   dissolve into the earth
grains of sand to be blown away by the divine breath
then I will be no more

but I know that this is not why I am here
and so     I sit in silence   listening to the voice within
chastising  berating  flogging my soul  with its words
taking the hatred once directed towards others
and turning it inwards

then the voice changes
again    facing out to the world     it cries out that this is wrong
I should not be here      I did nothing wrong
they deserved my hatred scorn contempt
for they did not recognize   accept   love me
they did not delight in my mere existence
and so I made them pay

no            the voice from the deepest place within me cries out
this is not how it was
only in your mind    your ego
it was a delusion to enable you to rise above others
wanting to believe you were better
it was you who   brought about the separation
it was you who   engendered the hatred and scorn through your speech
it was you who   terrorized others
in order to avoid the terror of intimacy

yes this is the truth
I did all this things
not out of  hatred  jealousy  envy
but out of fear
fear of connection     fear of the demands   of honest relationship
it was easier to lash out     and isolate
than to draw in and embrace
sitting here I listen to these voices    messages struggling    within
but as I sit   still   silent   listening   a single voice finally remains
the voice of the Divine    the One   that connects us all
it has defeated the voice of distinctions separations the ego

suddenly I open my eyes     for the first time      to see nothing
my skin is no longer covered with the festering sores   which my fear created
I know in my heart that my spirit is pure    prepared to rejoin the others
ready to wash away the filth that still remains   from all the harm I created
ready to offer of myself to the Divine     the One who has resurrected me
read to enter the world    my community    my people
body smooth as the day I was born
soul as pure as the moment it was created
heart open wide as it must have been before        though I cannot remember

yes I am ready
and so I sit    and wait    for them to be ready for me
I desire for it to be soon
but I know in my soul it will be when it is meant to be

Shabbat Shaom,


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