Torah Reading for the Week of March 23-29, 2014
“Tzaraat: A Case for Support or Opposition?”
By Rabbi Rochelle Robins, Dean of the Chaplaincy School and Director of Clinical Pastoral Education
This is one of the most undesirable Torah portions to interpret, negotiate, and discuss, according to most darshanim, when these preachers and teachers of Torah deliver their first words from the bimah about the parsha. Skin excretions, blotches, and isolation in illness do not compose the most uplifting or appetizing conversation at the Shabbat table. However, in the same breath as claiming social distaste of the biblical text, the presenting darshan will approach the content with fascination, bodily detail, and rich interpretation.
Because of this paradoxical disdain and fascination, ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary commentaries have developed innumerable possibilities about Parshat Tazria’s meaning, and the meaning behind the skin maladies, quarantine, ritual impurity, burns, and discolored clothing with green or red spots discussed therein.
Tzaraat, skin affliction, which is frequently and inaccurately translated as leprosy, is mentioned in the Talmud as being brought onto the sufferer because of the sins of gossip, murder, perjury, sexual impropriety, arrogance, theft, and jealousy (Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a). Ramban (Nachmanides), a great thirteenth-century commentator, proposed the idea that the affliction of tzaraat was a physical manifestation of G-d’s withdrawal from the world of transgressions.
While many of us do not abide by the theological viewpoint of a punishing Creator, these interpretations have been prevalent throughout history. And whether or not the sufferer clings to the notion of a punishing G-d, I’ve witnessed even the most rational of individuals during times of health become questioning and even fearful of punishment during times of illness and crisis. While negative and fear-based interpretations are unfortunate and have not helped in the establishment of healthy coping skills, this form of questioning, doubt, and fear of a punishing interventionist G-d may be part of the human condition. In my opinion, the text illuminates this part of the human experience of affliction more than it advocates for suffering through divine punishment. The Torah itself is commentary on the life and mind of human beings; it neither supports nor denies a negative theology. It simply observes aspects of life as they are.
Gentler interpretations of tzaraat also exist. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that tzaraat wasn’t a physical ailment at all. Rather, it was a spiritual ailment and call of distress for priestly intervention and assistance. Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, in her commentary on this Torah portion, presented the possibility that the quarantine for tzaraat, designated by the priest, could have been an opportunity for renewed well-being. The priest granted time and space, a “time out” to return to greater health.
In 1987, when I was almost overcome by the tzaraat of third degree burns on both legs – burns that could have very well taken my limbs and my life – I suffered with the internal and isolating questions of a punishing G-d. I was also afflicted by spiritual distress and the desperate seeking of a greater well-being with no physical or psychic pain. My rational mind and my emotional responses to the experience were sometimes at odds with one another. I doubt I would have said I believed in a punishing G-d, but I did feel punished. However, there were many priestly characters – doctors, nurses, and medical staff who felt both supportive and oppositional in my quarantine from life as I had known it. Their helping hands were a result of my isolation.
The social isolation of illness may cause deeper and more complex maladies than the illness itself. The social encouragement to heal, take time, and separate oneself from the pressures of life may be healing and curative.
Whether or not a cure is within medical capacity, the possibilities for healing and wholeness are inextricably linked to a positive social infrastructure. As “wounded healers,” a term coined by Roman Catholic Theologian, Henri Nouwen, we possess the ability to utilize our past afflictions to the benefit of our service and care of others. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be so, as we make sense of the paradox in this Torah text and in our own lives. In the paradox of support and opposition exists great learning and great healing.