Individuals and community can serve as plumbers for the spiritually clogged

Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh

Leviticus 12:1-13:59

Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

“Rabbi, can a Jew believe in both the Torah and evolution?” “Did the Exodus from Egypt really occur?” “If Adam and Eve were the only people, whom did their sons Cain and Abel marry?” These, and similarly framed ones, are questions I have heard often. I have spent a lot of time as a rabbi explaining that I do not read the Torah as a history or science textbook: the point of the Torah and the truths that the Torah present are spiritual and theological truths, not historical or scientific ones.

Which makes this week’s Torah reading all the more difficult. Parashat Tazria reads like a medical textbook. There are 116 verses about how to recognize a particular skin disease, tzara’at, often translated as “leprosy,” but only loosely sharing some of the same characteristics as that disease. “Gray’s Anatomy, take note!” the Torah seems to be crying out.

Even here, however, for all the depth of the details that the people are given regarding how to recognize and deal with this affliction, the Torah is making a different point. Tzara’at is only a physical sign of a deeper spiritual disease.

According to the Zohar (a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah), when Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they were in a purely spiritual state. Their skins, in fact, were garments of light. When they were exiled from the Garden, God weaved for them garments of skin, porous garments and protective coverings that would still allow the light of the soul to shine through. In a redeemed world, the Zohar says, we will return to skins of light, but in an unredeemed world, the challenge is to allow as much light as possible to shine through. Further, we are taught, when we are spiritually healthy, our skin protects our souls and allows the light of our souls to inspire others. When we sin, we clog up our pores.

Such spiritual clogging is what tzara’at is about. There is nothing in the Torah that even hints at a physical cause, such as touching a poisonous plant or ingesting an allergen. Early on, our sages identified tzara’at as an affliction that results from wrong behaviors, such as arrogance, slander or greed — acts that cut one off from others. As we participate in such deeds, tzara’at covers our outer skin and literally encrusts our soul. The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students, “Where is God to be found?” His own response: “Wherever we allow God in.” In the end, one suffering from tzara’at is so thickly coated, they no longer can let in others or God.

What is the “cure” for one who is afflicted with tzara’at, who is facing separation from holiness, from human and Godly connections? If we carefully read the very beginning of the long list of purifying steps, the Torah hints at the necessary “cure.”

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported [v’huva] to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests” (Lev. 13:2). The individual’s condition is reported to the priest; from the point of view of the person needing healing, the action is passive. The Torah is making a bold statement: One who is spiritually hurt or dying cannot see it. An affected individual cannot diagnose or heal themselves. They cannot alone take the steps to get to a cure. Someone else needs to recognize the need of the one afflicted, and report it to those who can help.

The beginning of “treatment” is the re-establishment of communal care and ties. Strong, healthy relationships must be fostered. It is only through human-human caring and interactions that we begin to again sense and feel the presence of the Divine.

This is a message that is a timely and timeless truth. We do not see individuals today walking around with tzara’at, but we do often know of others who feel distant, separate, lonely and apart — people who have been alienated from or have alienated themselves from the community.

Let us all try better to recognize those with spiritual needs not being met, and help to “bring them forth” to spiritual health through our individual and communal love. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.