Healing is More Than Skin Deep

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59

D'Var Torah By: Andrea C. London

Focal Point

The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before Adonai. (Leviticus 14:14-16)

D'var Torah

Today, medical professionals are gradually recognizing the importance of caring for the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of people who suffer from physical illness. We can all celebrate this progress in the world of health care. But what do we do about those for whom the physical symptoms of disease, illness, or injury have abated? Can we assume that they have put their illnesses behind them, that their reintegration into the world of work, society, and religious community will be emotionally and spiritually seamless? This week, the enigmatic doubleparashah, Tazria/M'tzora, with its baffling depiction of priests dabbing blood on "recoverees" from a dermatological condition, offers us rare insight into our need to "re-embrace" those who have recovered from illness and injury.

A cursory reading of Tazria/M'tzora shows the priests occupied with their traditional role: offering sacrifices on behalf of those who have become ritually impure -- either women who have recently given birth or people who have been healed from tzaraat (a complex of skin ailments). The sacrifices were designed to bring such individuals back to a state of ritual purity. However, one of the final rituals the priests performed for the healed m'tzora (one who is afflicted with tzaraat) shows that priests were concerned not only with ritual purity, but also with spiritual and emotional healing.

The priests were responsible for segregating a m'tzora and then, once the person was healed, reintegrating him or her into the community through a series of rituals. After several animals were sacrificed, the m'tzoracompletely cleansed, and the person's hair shaved, a final ritual was performed that is rather unusual. The priest dabbed blood on the cleansed m'tzora. Specifically, he applied lamb's blood to the ridge of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot. The only other reference to such a practice comes in Exodus 29:20 (repeated in Leviticus 8:23), where Moses used it in the ordination ceremony of Aaron.

Philo offers the following interpretation for the significance of this ritual for the priests: "The fully consecrated [for the priesthood] must be pure in words and actions and in his whole life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life" (Philo, On the Life of Moses, 2:150, as quoted inThe Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, p. 804). Hertz, in his Torah commentary, further elaborates, "The ear was touched with the blood, that it might be consecrated to hear the word of God; the hand, to perform the duties connected with the priesthood; and the foot, to walk the path of righteousness" (J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs [London: Soncino Press, 1978], p. 346).

Yet the question remains: Why was this ritual used for the m'tzora, and why was blood used? Recall the blood placed on the doorposts of the Israelites' home prior to their leaving Egypt. There, blood symbolized both life and death. The blood on the Israelite doorposts saved their lives, while its absence marked the Egyptians firstborn sons for death. The purification process of the m'tzora allowed the priests to ritually mark the "death" of illness alongside a spiritual rebirth.

This leaves the issue of the peculiar marking of the ear, the thumb, and the big toe. In the Kabbalah, the body is divided into three parts. The head is the residence of the intellect, the torso and arms are associated with the emotions, and the bottom part of our body is associated with behavior. By marking these parts of the body, the priests seemed to indicate that complete healing is a function of the body, mind, and soul.

Affliction with tzaraat was surely a heavy burden to endure -- the fear and shame associated with the unsightly skin afflictions, and the loneliness of separation from the community. By placing blood on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe, the priests recognized the totality of the suffering and the need for a r'fuah sh'leimah -- the healing of body, mind, and soul.

Moreover, it can be no coincidence that the priests performed the same ritual on the m'tzora that they themselves underwent upon their ordination as priests. By performing this same ritual on the m'tzora, the priests bestowed upon that person dignity and honor, which are important elements in spiritual healing.

We often see the same today -- fear, loneliness, and sometimes shame accompanying illness. Ritual purity is not a primary concern for us anymore, but the role of priest as spiritual healer -- one who with dignity and empathy can spiritually reintegrate someone who has been ill back to emotional and spiritual health -- is a model for us all.

By the Way

  • Decades of involvement with mystic teaching do have their affect, however. I am engaged with a realm of human understanding that by definition goes beyond ordinary rules of reason or scientific explanation. I am not much attracted to those experiments that try to lend it greater "scientific" credibility by measuring the alpha waves of meditators or analyzing the brain chemistry of apocalyptic visionaries. . . . I have thus come to accept that there are forces or energies present in the world that we have not yet found ways to measure or describe. (Art Green, "Judaism and Healing: A Mystical Seeker's Perspective" [address delivered at the conference "Mining the Jewish Tradition," May 2003])
  • Birkat HaGomel is the traditional blessing recited after one has recovered from illness. The blessing, recited by the "recoveree," is "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who bestows good things on one in debt to You, and who has granted me all good." The congregation then responds, "Amen. And may the One who has bestowed upon you good, continue to bestow upon you good. Let it be so!"
  • If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise. Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe.

    Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery, which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. Fundamentally, helping, fixing and service are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.

    Lastly, fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing. In 40 years of chronic illness I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals. (Rachel Naomi Remen, "In the Service of Life," Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996)

Your Guide

  1. Why is ritual important to the healing process?
  2. Rachel Naomi Remen distinguishes service from fixing and healing. In what way is the ritual performed by the priest for the m'tzora an example of service?
  3. If all of us are a "kingdom of priests," what is our role in the healing process?
  4. Is Birkat HaGomel a ritual that we should incorporate into our synagogue services, or should we develop something new?

Rabbi Andrea C. London is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois.

Reference Materials

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839-854; Revised Edition, pp. 750-764; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 657-678

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