I have eczema. It’s sometimes scaly and itchy and I often wish that there was a cure and it would just go away. I’ve had it my whole life and I know that it is not contagious. It gets worse when it is cold or when I am stressed. No doctor has ever been able to explain how eczema is caused and no medicine has ever made it completely disappear.
Every year when we get to Parashat Tazria-Metzora, I think about the affliction of tzara’at, commonly translated as leprosy, and I wonder if my eczema might have been caused by something I said or touched or if it is just supposed to be my personal reminder to treat others with kindness and compassion – because though some have an external skin affliction, we never really know the internal afflictions that affect our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.
Our sages have taught us that tzara’at, an external condition, is really a sign of an internal moral condition. Though outwardly tzara’at would seem to be a mysterious skin disease, inwardly it reveals something about the human condition, and offers an ancient explanation for an outward human ailment that has seemingly existed for all time.
The Torah really doesn’t describe the disease known today as leprosy; the symptoms described in our parasha – with much emphasis on small white patches – simply do not correspond to any symptoms of modern day leprosy. The Cohen or priest inspects the affected skin after a week, but again, leprosy in modern times progresses much too slowly to see a difference in that time.
Also, the Torah has a very strange prescription for a total outbreak of tzara’at:”The priest is to examine him, and if the disease has covered his whole body, he shall pronounce that person clean. Since it has all turned white, he is clean.”(Leviticus 13:13)
What an amazing paradox: If a person is totally covered, then he or she is totally clean! This certainly makes little medical sense. Instead, I would suggest it is a hint about the spiritual nature of the problem.
Our ancient rabbis argued that tzara’at refers not to a bodily disease but to a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise; it was a physical ailment that afflicted someone who probably needed to do some form of heshbon hanefesh, soul seeking, or teshuva, repentance, and look inward to think about what he or she might have said to hurt another.
The Torah commands that the one afflicted with tzara’at would spend a week or more outside of the camp, away from the community, isolated and socially excluded. And I think that there is a modern day parallel. Not that we can say now that my eczema is a punishment for some kind of anti-social behavior, but rather that the Torah is teaching us that one of the worst things that can happen to us is to exclude others, to hurt people’s feelings, to make others feel that they are smaller or lesser than we are. Today we are not afflicted with leprosy when we act out of pride or selfishness or we fail to respect others. But we may instead be afflicted with an internal, invisible ailment instead, which may lead to our own isolation. And the last thing we would want was to be socially isolated from our community.
It is not good to be isolated. It is not good to treat others with malice or anger or to speak badly about a person or shame someone. When we do these things, we create conflict in our communities and families and we isolate ourselves from the people we most want to be with. As we read Tazria and Metzora this week, instead of being repulsed by the graphic descriptions of skin ailments, instead of thinking this has nothing to do with us, let’s think about taking account of how we speak and how we treat others, to insure that no one need to be isolated and alone, away from community.