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.
In this week's double parashah, Tazria/M'tzora, we learn more than anybody would ever want to know about a skin condition called tzaraat, an apparently serious collection of skin diseases prevalent in the biblical period and bearing some relationship to the conditions we know today as eczema and psoriasis. Priests would inspect individuals afflicted with this condition and if the latter were found to be tamei, "unclean," then they were barred from all human contact. The text contains a heartbreaking description of what life was like for those with tzaraat: "As for the person with an…affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall be made to call out, 'Unclean! Unclean!'… His dwelling shall be outside the camp." (Leviticus 13:45-46) Once the infection healed, the priest examined the patient again and conducted an elaborate ritual involving sacrifices and offerings. Then the formerly afflicted one was pronounced tahor, "clean," and he or she was readmitted to the community.
Although the priests were the ones who declared someone to be "clean" or "unclean," it does not appear that their role was a medical one. Nowhere does the text say that the priests attempted to treat the condition or that they were in any way functioning as modern-day public health officers. In addition, it was possible to delay the pronouncement of tzaraat for a variety of reasons, such as a pilgrimage festival or a wedding. Had the priests been primarily concerned about safeguarding public health, then surely these quarantine regulations would have been enforced even more strictly when large groups of people were scheduled to congregate together in one place. Then what did this ritual of declaring a person to be "clean" again mean? The ritual itself was more than just an announcement by the priests that the patient was now disease-free: It had the power to reinstate the despised, the rejected, and the outcast as a full community member. By means of the priestly ritual, an outsider's social status was transformed. The ritual made something happen by declaring it to be so.
Until quite recently, if you asked a group of average liberal Jews what they thought about ritual, the less tactful among them might have referred to ritual as "superstition," "magic," or some equally dismissive term. Others would likely have responded that religion is essentially about ethics and that rituals are just the outer (and, therefore, dispensable) husk around an inner moral core. Certainly, this was the position of many of the early Reformers. But what increasing numbers of us now understand is that when individuals and communities give rituals power, they can transform people, space, and time. The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote, "When we honestly reflect on our busy scrubbing and cleanings,…we know that we are not mainly trying to avoid disease. We are separating, placing boundaries, making visible statements about the home that we are intending to create out of the material house." In other words, all of our actions-and our rituals-carry meaning beyond the obvious and the literal. Even the ethical impulse needs ritual to concretize and carry it. Our rituals remind us of what we believe and what we need to do. Our rituals are our metaphors for expressing what we cannot adequately say in words. Ritual is what we use symbolically to say what we think about the world. And more, ritual is the way in which we interpret and then go on to make that world.
Rituals are magic, and because of their power, they deserve respect, not dismissal. Friday evening becomes Shabbat when we perform rituals that have the power to transform the ordinary into the holy. In the ritual of marriage, two unrelated people are joined and become something different-a family. And in biblical times, the priestly ritual took marginal, excluded members of the community and brought them back in to it. The tzaraatritual created a change in social status, a transformative leap from one state of being to a better, richer one. For me, the message of Tazria/M'tzora is that we can all be like those priests. Through the rituals that we perform, we make statements about how we view the world, and then we can attempt to create the world that we see in our minds and in our hearts. Through the "magic" of ritual, we can transform others, and we can also transform ourselves.
Rabbi Kim S. Geringer is the rabbi at Congregation Sha'arey Ha-Yam in Manahawkin, New Jersey.
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