By Rabbi Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities
Tzara'at and Impurity
This week's parashah, Tazria, is the first of two parshiot dealing with issues of skin afflictions, purity and holiness. Tazria (which in non-leap years is paired with the next parashah, Metzora) describes how Aaron and his sons, the cohanim/priests, are assigned the duty of examining people with tzara'at/skin afflictions to determine the extent of the affliction and when they are healed so that they can return to the camp, as they must remain outside the camp while afflicted.
The classic rabbinic interpretation of tzara'at is that it is the result of some type of moral or spiritual "impurity" or immoral actions, such as gossip (this is especially true of the interpretation of next week's parashah). The idea that a physical affliction is an external manifestation of an internal flaw or impurity is anathema today. It reminds us too much of those who state that AIDS or other diseases are a punishment for immorality. However, in Biblical times and even later later it was a common assumption that everything can be viewed as either a punishment or reward from God. Diseases and illnesses were no exception.
The Hassidic master, the Sefat Emet, provides us with an interpretation that is a powerful metaphor for how we close off ourselves from the spiritual thereby bringing distress to ourselves.
In commenting on the simple verse "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore" (Vayikra 13:1-2) the Sefat Emet makes the link between the Hebrew word for skin ('or', beginning with the silent letter ayin) and the word for light ('or', beginning with the silent letter aleph). There is a long tradition within Judaism, especially within the mystical schools, that focuses on the belief that originally Adam and Havah (Eve) were in a purely spiritual state and were clothed in "garments of light ('or')" but that after the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were then clothed in "garments of skin" ('or'), which they viewed as the skin of the serpent. The corporeal nature of humanity arrived from this. From that moment on human beings consisted of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element. The spiritual, represented by the garment of light, still existed but it was covered by the garment of skin only to "shine through" at specific moments and would not be seen in its full glory until the arrival of the Messianic Era.