Medical anthropologists Ron Barrett and George Aremelagos contend that ancient nomadic peoples suffered less from acute infectious diseases that led to raging epidemics than from chronic infections and parasites contracted hunting and gathering. With the advent of the agricultural revolution, people settled into the land and formed villages, allowing local populations to grow sufficiently large to support acute epidemic disease. Torah speaks of plagues that strike the Israelites, interpreting them as God’s punishment for violations of divine will; perhaps this is a reflection of the later agricultural period in Israelite history.
In the parshiot Tazria and Metzora, we find echoes of the nomadic challenge of chronic infections. In this week’s parashah, Metzora, Torah discusses the metzora, one who is afflicted with tzara’at, which is often inaccurately translated “leprosy,” as well as neg’a, some sort of plague that infests houses, growing on the walls. Imagine, for a moment, how frightening such infestations must have been in the ancient world.
The term tzara’at is an umbrella term covering a variety of skin ailments that were understood to convey ritual impurity and require exclusion from the community until healed, followed by purification when the sufferer is welcomed back. We do not know precisely what conditions are included under this umbrella, but chronic infections and parasitic skin ailments are undoubtedly among them. Priests preside over the identification of tzara’at, the welfare of the metzora who is required to reside outside the camp, and the purification of the sufferer once readmitted. Purification involves two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop (Leviticus 14:4) entwined in a complex ritual. Here is how Torah describes it:
The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be purified of the eruption and purify him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be purified shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be pure. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:5-9)
The following day, the recovered metzora brings a sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting consisting of two male lambs, one ewe lamb, flour, and oil.
The metzora bathes himself not once, but twice: the first time he washes his clothes, shaves his hair, and bathes his body while still outside the camp, just before re-entering; again, a week later just prior to bringing sacrificial offerings to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) he bathes a second time. Sefer Ha-Hinnuch, published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century, explains that the purpose of bathing himself is not only to cleanse himself. We are talking about ritual purity here, not personal hygiene, so this comes as no surprise, but Sefer Ha-Hinnuch has an interesting take on the spiritual effect the immersion in water: It is an act of rebirth or recreation; the metzora is born anew out of the water. Just as the world emerged out of watery chaos (Genesis 1:2) so too the metzora emerges spiritually a new person from the emotional chaos of tzara’at, the exclusion from the community, and recovery. He is a different person.
Many people who have gone through a devastating illness report that they emerged new people and describe survival as starting life over. Suleika Jaouad graduated from Princeton University in 2010, ripe and ready to jump onto the fast track to success. No sooner had she begun her first corporate job than she was diagnosed with cancer. Following two years of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Suleika emerged a different person, one who had developed what she calls “invisible muscles” for confronting and coping with stress. One senses that her experience has led her to reassess her life path. The world looks entirely different on the other side of the dark tunnel, because the one who emerges into the light is forever changed.
If you have been in the dark valley of illness or trauma, did you emerge changed in some way? Were you, in a sense, born anew, with new insights and priorities, newfound sensibilities?
The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) makes a fascinating comment on a very strange verse in the parashah. After recounting the rituals and procedures described above, Torah tells us:
When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:34)
The S’fat Emet asks, as perhaps you are asking yourself:
What sort of strange announcement is this?
S’fat Emet invokes Rashi’s imaginative suggestion that the plague on the walls of the houses was not a punishment for wrongdoing, but rather a ploy to compel the Israelites to tear down the walls, thus revealing treasure concealed within. He explains:
Rashi explains that the Canaanites [had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses, which the Israelites would find upon destroying the houses]. Now really?! Did the Creator of the universe need to resort to such contortions? Why would God have given the Canaanites the idea of hiding [treasures in the walls of their houses] so that Israel would have to knock down the houses?!
The idea of a treasure-concealed-within inspires S’fat Emet to comment:
The real meaning of these afflictions of houses is in fact quite wondrous, a demonstration that Israel’s holiness is so great that they can also draw sanctity and purity into their dwelling-places… That is what Israel did when they brought the land of Canaan forth from defilement and into the reality of holiness. Then it became the Land of Israel, and the blessed Creator caused His presence to dwell in the holy Temple...
We can already see that S’fat Emet is bringing a psychological interpretation to this passage of Torah. The houses of the Canaanites are the world around, as well as us. The treasure concealed in the walls is the holiness implicit in everything in the world, including us—all reality—awaiting discovery. But we build psychological walls in our houses-of-the-self and fail to find them. Yet the hidden treasures—inherent holiness—abounds and surrounds us. And what is more, the treasure of holiness is within us. S’fat Emet concludes:
This is the real “hidden treasure” — that in the most corporeal of objects there are hidden sparks of the greatest holiness… (S’fat Emet 3:139f)
We must destroy the walls to find the treasure. I would propose that our walls may be build of self-absorption, deceit, insensitivity, vicious competitiveness, overweening pride, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, nastiness, fear of considering new ideas, pomposity—all of which arise from our sense of vulnerability and insecurity. We build the walls (that is, act out of these negative attributes) to protect ourselves, to wall ourselves off from the sense of being vulnerable, the feeling of insecurity. The key to our happiness and wellbeing, expressed in Torah as cure and purification, is to tear down the walls and shed these negative traits.
But how do we do that? It would seem by accepting vulnerability and insecurity as a normal part of the human psyche. It’s okay to feel that way—everyone does. A young mother named Lana who suffers from chronic illness (rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia) says that illness has changed her in some positive ways, as well as some not-so-positive, ways. The positive changes are that she has learned to choose acceptance, to offer and when necessary seek support, and to look for a silver lining instead of asking “why?” Lana understand that she must actively decide to choose to accept her vulnerability. She copes with her insecurity by choosing to accept help from others, and by pushing away the dead-end question of “why” and instead searching for a silver lining.
Demolition is never easy. But it is liberating. It may seem counter-intuitive, but accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity contributes to our own spiritual healing by allowing us to liberate the treasures of holiness hidden behind the walls. Accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity frees us to be far better versions of ourselves.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman