Tazria means "She Who Gives Birth," but this portion should really be titled "The Ick Factor." What is the real story behind the mysterious skin disease "tzaraat"? Mishkan's 16th Italian correspondent Sforno has the scoop.
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Welcome to The Morning Scroll! I'm Rabbi Deena Cowans from Mishkan Chicago and you're listening to what will be a quick dive into this week's parsha. If you’ve been meaning to brush up on your Jewish literacy, or you’re looking for some inspiration, you’ve come to the right place. This week, we read Parashat Tazria, “she who gives birth”, where we enter a section of the Torah I like to call “the ick cycle”. We’ll start with a brief recap:
A woman who gives birth is considered ritually impure for a period of time, and then has to immerse in a mikvah and bring a sacrifice to the Temple. We also learn that a baby boy is supposed to be circumcised on the 8th day of life. Then, we get into the ick. Anyone who is suspected of having tzaraat, a skin disease, must be seen by a priest, because they are ritually impure. Tzaraat may present as whitened skin discoloration, and requires up to two weeks of quarantine. The Torah discusses what happens after the two weeks- the person is reinspected and declared pure or impure- and what happens if the tzaraat spreads, raw skin appears, or the whole body becomes covered in the rash. We also learn about tzaraat that appears where there was a wound or burn, how to diagnose tzaraat in hairy areas of the body, and what to do if tzaraat appears in multiple areas of the body. The procedure for anyone found to have tzaraat is that they must be quarantined outside the city until it clears up, at which point they immerse in a mikvah and can rejoin society. We also learn about tzaraat which appears on clothing as a green or red discoloration, in which case the garment is quarantined. After the quarantine period, the garment is either declared pure, completely burnt, or the tzaraat part is cut out and burned.
In this part of the Torah, I find myself wondering: why has the Torah turned into a medical textbook? The word Torah literally means “instruction”, but I thought this was more of a moral and spiritual instruction than a medical one. Turns out, I’m not the only one with this question. The Italian commentator Sforno also has this question, though he phrases it slightly differently. He asks, why is the Torah spending so much time describing an ailment that medical textbooks don’t cover? You might think this type of affliction is common, given the amount of time the Torah dedicates to describing it, but yet… I’ve never seen anything like this affliction. To which Sforno answers himself, “OH! It’s not about the medical aspect of tzaraat! It IS about the spiritual aspect of unwellness.” So let’s unpack that for a second. We read, in almost exhaustive, nauseating detail, about this crusty, oozy affliction that can affect anything from your skin to your clothing to the very walls of your house. So it would be understandable if we thought that the symptoms of this affliction were the thing we were supposed to pay attention to. But no, says Sforno. The symptoms are a ruse. What the Torah really wants us to pay attention to, he says, is the spiritual malady for which the physical symptoms are the red flag. The oozing, crusting, molding appearance is about calling our attention to a spiritual malady, to something about a person’s spiritual life that demands attention. This is why a priest is the designated person to take your tzaraat-related concerns, because the illness originates in a person’s spiritual life. The surprising change in physical appearance is just the alert system that something systemic needs attention.
This, I think, happens to us all the time, in all sorts of forms. Have you ever burst into tears in frustration trying to open a jar of pickles? Or felt yourself seething with rage at a driver who cut you off in traffic? Or watched a kid have a meltdown in the grocery store when their caregiver doesn’t let them grab candy? I’m going to hazard a bet and say none of these emotional responses are really about the thing itself. We don’t usually cry over pickles. But we DO cry over feeling frustrated or helpless. We do feel angry when something scary happens outside our control. We do protest when we feel we cannot influence the world around us in ways we want to. The pickle jar, or rude driver, or grocery store candy, is like tzaraat. The unpleasant moment that invites us to ask a much deeper question about what went wrong, rather than assume the problem is skin deep.
Admittedly, getting tzaraat in the time of the Torah sounds deeply unpleasant. So I want to offer a blessing to a person who, in that time, woke up one day to find their skin changing appearance. I hope that that experience brought them to what they needed, which was a spiritual leader who paid close attention to them, who guided them through this confusing moment and reminded them that whatever deeper problem they face, they’re not alone. And I hope that you, too, can find this kind of attention when you feel yourself snap at something seemingly small and unexpected. I hope you take that moment to ask the deeper question, to investigate what actually ails you, and I hope you always know that there are others to support you in these moments.