This week I discovered that I was the victim of identity theft. Numerous accounts of various types were opened in my name and merchandise had been ordered from online vendors which were then swiped from my mailbox and doorstep. It became clear that my most sensitive and personal information had been compromised and were floating around somewhere on the dark web. Someone out there was gallivanting around using my identity as a Purim costume and representing themselves as me. I quickly went to work countering the breach by filing a police report, closing down fake accounts, proving my identity over and over again by providing an ocean of arcane details from my past, and finally working to freeze and seal my credit.
The experience made me think about Parshat Metzorah — the second of two Torah portions we read this Shabbat — in which we are treated to an elaborate and detailed analysis of tzara’at, a spiritual affliction from Biblical times resembling leprosy. The sages of the Talmud teach (Sanhedrin 98b) that Moshiach — the Jewish redeemer — is called a metzorah, someone who has tzara’at, or, more colloquially if less medically accurately, a leper. But why is Moshiach specifically described as having leprosy and not any other illness?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman — the author of the Tanya, the seminal work of Chabad philosophy — illuminates this idea by explaining that the nature of leprosy challenges us to reorient our perceptions by contextualizing the disease in a positive spiritual light. He proceeds to explain that Moshiach personifies the powerful Divine revelation of the future Messianic era. As we stand at the threshold of this great period we are challenged to look past the world’s superficial ugliness and partake in the global effort to unveil the Divine energy attempting to break through its surface, just as one must look past the Moshiach’s skin-deep ailment to see the redeemer within. Inasmuch as the surface affliction focuses us on the issue and motivates us to look deeper, it may be re-interpreted as a hidden blessing. Similarly, when tzara’at afflicts an individual, they should view it as a hidden blessing impelling and rallying the ailing person to see past their superficial, bodily façade to reveal and more deeply identify with their inner truth, their holy soul within.
To be sure, the process of critical self-analysis and introspection which leads to this mindset is not a quick fix — just as the process of cleaning up one’s my credit was time consuming and frustrating. But with this thought of Rabbi Schneur Zalman in mind, I didn’t quite feel like my identity had been stolen. On the contrary, rather than a loss of personhood, I felt liberated from some aspects of my acquired, superficial identity brought on by living in a world filled with false representation, virtual avatars, fake news, and innuendo. I had been stripped of material appendages sapping me with their dead weight, freeing me to take closer notice and appreciate what now remained: my soul, my mitzvot, my life’s mission — my real and true identity.
This thought reminded me of the time I was conversing with an optician who posited that everyone should have multiple pairs of eyeglasses just as they have many sets of clothing to suit their mood, weather, and setting. After considering his viewpoint I countered that they are not at all comparable since we use our face to manifest our innermost self — our singular, true identity — to others and this should be done in a consistent, unchanging manner, whereas articles of clothing are worn on superficial body parts relating to the wearer alone. Sadly, in a world chiefly propelled by superficial values, representing oneself with two faces sounded reasonable to him. (I convinced him in the end, but he asked me not to share the idea since it was bad for business!)
Identity theft can also take on a more subtle yet even more egregious form where others attempt to modify your own identity while you are wearing it.
In the recent Mahwah Township eruv battle which fueled a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment, some Mahwah (and Bergen County) residents pushed back against the attacks, recognizing a darker side of the issue that was being masked by seemingly innocuous opposition to the eruv boundary.
I am fortunate to be closely acquainted with a Mahwah resident at the heart of the clash who determined not to give the haters a victory by allowing them to define and control his Jewish identity with their vitriol and anti-Semitism. Instead, he peered deeply into his own soul and embarked on a process of Jewish self-discovery and empowerment. Today, he studies Torah, attends Shabbat services, and has begun to define his own Jewish identity from within our historic Jewish framework.
Sometimes having your identity challenged or stolen is, like tzara’at, a gift that prods us to discover the depth of character within.