Parashat Tazria/M'tzora is concerned with skin diseases and the procedures involved in checking for them, assessing them, declaring the sufferers healed, and reintegrating the latter into the community. But when we think about tzaraat, the focus is strangely narrow. After all, every organ and system in our body is susceptible to disease or injury. And many of these diseases manifest themselves in ugly, unpleasant ways. So why is our Torah reading restricted to skin diseases alone?
A modern commentator suggests that the Torah is talking about skin-deep disease, warning us against the sin of superficiality. In our affluent culture, it is so easy for us to compare the sizes of our houses or the makes of our cars and to feel superior to those we trump. On the other hand, in these days of multimillionaires, it is also easy to feel inferior to a person who possesses enormous riches. From messages in the media to the salary structures of our corporations, everything in our society communicates the notion that our worth is dependent on the size of our paychecks. If we are rich, the best restaurants are open to us, we pay for first-class lounges so that we don't have to sit in the crowded waiting rooms at the airport, and we are invited to sit on the boards of important Jewish communal organizations. Often all of this engenders a sense of entitlement: We get the best because we are the best. It also often gives us a false sense of self-sufficiency: I attained this all by myself. Conversely, those who have not reached this standard can't be worth our time. We are judged and so we pass judgment on others based on their balance sheets.
It is exactly these messages from our money-minded society that our Torah portion warns us against. Our tradition teaches us alternative values to those of a money-oriented society. It teaches us that the true worth of individuals is measured by the depth of their relationships, not the depth of their stock portfolio. It is measured by the number of mitzvot they strive to accomplish, not the number on their paycheck. It is measured by the times they try to cultivate a positive attitude, not the times they try to cultivate a potential client. The Torah tells us that our true accomplishments come from our depths, our guts, and our heart, not from the superficial level of our finances.
Now we can understand how relevant our Torah portion is today. Jews in ancient times were afraid of skin disease and had an elaborate system to deal with it. So, too, we should be afraid of the skin-deep disease that is the lure of superficiality. Just as our forebears had an elaborate system to guard against skin disease and to heal those who had succumbed to it, so, too, we must support and promote those institutional systems that will guard against society's pressures to succumb to superficiality, namely, our Jewish schools, camps, youth groups, and adult Kallot. It is this system of institutions that will strengthen us and our children as we measure ourselves by the yardsticks of spiritual and emotional growth and not merely by the growth of our bank accounts.
Our Torah portion challenges us to reevaluate our accomplishments. It asks us to consider the following: How can we move beyond the externals to value every individual? How can we grow as Jews? How do we guard against the disease of superficiality? And it teaches us that building our character, not our finances, should be our ultimate concern.
Rabbi Cathy Felix is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Sussex County, Congregation B'nai Israel in Newton, NJ.