Sunday, March 23, 2014

When is a Rash Not a Rash? / Parshat Tazria

Contracting poison ivy as a child meant I had to remain at home because the sight of it elicited looks and comments best not repeated. Living in New England, it was not difficult to come by poison ivy; all it took was someone down the road burning wood in a fireplace. Around the age of 10, a publisher producing a textbook with the working title, “Extreme Cases in Dermatology” called from California to request a photo of me with a full-blown case of poison ivy for the book. Somehow they’d heard about the kid from Connecticut who got whopping cases of it. I knew what that meant: I was a hideous freak. You won’t be surprised to learn that I said no thank you.

Parshat Tazria dives headfirst into the deep end of the pool of physical embodiment, specifically the muck and mire of a broad array of skin conditions, all gathered under the rubric tzara’at: rashes, sores, scaly conditions, swellings and inflammations, leprosy, skin eruptions, and even burns… These conditions all render one tamei, in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity), unfit to enter the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting), and even requiring exclusion from Israel’s encampment. The priests served as examiners and diagnosticians, and determined when one stricken with a skin lesion could be admitted back into the community and undergo a purification ritual.

We do not live with a constant awareness of, and concern about, ritual purity. Death itself, which is to say contact with a corpse, is the most severe purveyor of tum’ah, but the sores and rashes of tzara’at make one impure, as well. Jacob Milgrom explains that matters of ritual purity—tum’ah and taharah—reflect Torah’s premium on life. That which touches death conveys tum’ah (impurity). Purification, then, is the process of restoring full life to the body.

Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, suggests that tum’ah is about disruption of the proper order, a trespass of proper boundaries and limits, in this case of the body most directly, but by extension disruption of the world order. The danger impurity poses to the body is mirrored in the society as a whole because the individual’s body is a microcosm of society, the social body. This explains why one stricken with impurity-rendering body sores was separated from the community until cured.

Those periodic cases of poison ivy certainly disrupted the order of my life in a big way. Hiding at home, the equivalent of outside the camp, shielded me from painful stares and comments. Poison ivy was not just skin deep. Like the Torah, the early Hasidic masters also understood that tzara’at was far more than skin deep, but in a very different way. For them, the sores, rashes, and eruptions are understood as symbolic of spiritual lesions.

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717-1787) interprets this passage from Tazria:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration [or: brightness], and it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affliction on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affliction appears to be deeper than the skin of his body it is a leprous affliction; when the priest sees it he shall pronounce him unclean. (Leviticus 13:2-3)
R. Elimelekh, in his commentary on the Torah, Noam Elimelekh, identifies each manifestation of tzara’at mentioned by Torah: swellings, rashes, and discolorations.
A swelling refers to bad qualities that are the root of sin, and the root of all bad qualities is pride…

Or a rash. Here Scriptures warns us against various causes that can lead a person to arrogance. The first is associating with empty people who spend their days in the streets—such company can lead a person to arrogance very quickly…

Or a discoloration/brightness. This is the second cause. Sometimes the bright light and enthusiasm a person feels from doing a good deed can lead to arrogance. You have to be very careful with this.

And it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body. The words “affliction” (נגע in Hebrew) and “pleasure” (ענג in Hebrew) are written with the same letters [נ, ג, ע]. This teaches that you can transform the affliction into pleasure [that is, you can transform something bad into something good], but if you are not careful it will become tzara’at.
R. Elimelekh goes on to equate the priests with tzaddikim, Hasidic rabbis who guide the sufferer toward spiritual healing. For Elimelekh, this is an important point; he was instrumental in developing the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik as a mystical, spiritual leader.

R. Elimelekh begins with an arcane text from the Torah, one that is remote from our world both ritually and scientifically, and reinterprets it for the spiritual realm we inhabit in the 21st—and any other—century. He warns us that pride and arrogance are the enemies of goodness and, ultimately, happiness in our lives. Pride and arrogance are defensive emotions that guard against vulnerability, revealing the true self, and the risk that we are not what we would hope to be. Pride and arrogance corrode our souls, transform our visages, and render us unfit to be among others. And lest we tell ourselves: but I’m not prideful, nor am I arrogant — R. Elimelekh warns us that even the good feeling that comes from doing a good deed, while not in itself bad, can lead to arrogance if we are not careful to guard against it.

Arrogance is corrosive, and poisons our relationships. A farmer from Texas, touring England, met an English farmer and asked, “How big is your farm?” The Englishman replied, “Thirty-five acres.” “Thirty-five acres?” scoffed the Texan. “Why I can get in my truck at 8:00 am and drive until noon and still be on my farm. Then I can eat lunch and drive again until 5:00 pm and I’m still on my farm.” The Englishman nodded in sympathy. “I had a truck like that once, too.” Humor may serve on occasion to hold another’s arrogance at arm’s length, but not always, and it certainly doesn’t help us mitigate our own arrogance.

R. Elimelekh therefore offers a common and wonderful Hasidic trop: evil and negativity can be transformed into goodness. Here R. Elimelekh employs a word play: the terms in Hebrew for “affliction” נגע, and “pleasure” ענג, are written with the same three Hebrew letters: נ, ג, ע. Re-arranging “affliction” gives us “pleasure.” One is never imprisoned by one’s negative traits; they can always be transformed into something good and wonderful through awareness, effort, and with the help of a “priest” who might be a spiritual guide, spouse, friend, or therapist.

R. Elimelekh’s interpretation of tzara’at may be far from the very real biblical concern with skin afflictions and their implications for ritual purity, but it speaks to us now in the lives we live.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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