Tazria: Sin to Skin - The Leper's Lesson

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)

This week we are introduced to tzaarat, Biblical leprosy. And I say Biblical because the leprosy discussed here is a far cry from our current notions of disease. Just as Biblical reality is one of revealed miracles, where physical and spiritual realms are fully merged, so too is the bodily phenomena of tzaarat an indicator of a spiritual blemish. Today, we haven''t the same overt expressions of spiritual-cause and physical-affect. Indeed, to claim that someone''s illness is due to a spiritual blemish would itself be a sin of presumptuousness and insensitivity.
 
And yet, we can take this biblical model as an archetype for instruction in our own lives. For, in essence, to be a leper is to be a person who can not hide her sins. The archetypal leper has no poker face. She is where sin meets skin, where the surface reveals the depths. It is noteworthy that the Talmud says that one of the names of the Messiah is ''metzora'', a leper.1 The Lubavitcher Rebbe reads this to signify that the Messianic era will be a time when the long-submerged ills and evils which infest mankind will rise to the surface, becoming visible so that they may be confronted and cured. The leprous Messiah stands as a model for externalizing and engaging hitherto submerged truths; a model for the facing and effacing of inner-ills.
 
Granted, this facing is not a pleasurable one. Just look at the parasha''s details of scabs and boils, discoloration and deformation. And yet, there is a long-term pleasure that is reaped from such confrontations with deeper truth. The discomfort inherent in facing our shortcomings and sins may be acute, but it is temporary. On the other hand, the invaluable learning we gain in the process is eternal.
 
It is no mistake that the Hebrew word for pleasure, oneg, is made up of the same letters as the word ''nega'', blemish, the word used to describe tzaarat. According to Kabbalah, the letters which make up a word reflect its inner life-force.2 Thus the inner-essence of blemish is the same as that of pleasure. When we confront the plague of nega and reconfigure its parts, we touch upon oneg, true pleasure. A life that is spent avoiding blemishes and burying truths may be a life of comfort and safety, but it is not a life of pleasure. Ultimate pleasure comes from engagement and healing of the disfigured parts of ourselves. This is the secret of the leprous Messiah.3
But how do we do this Messianic work? How do we transform nega into oneg? I think it is instructive that the Biblical formula commands that the leper sit alone, badad, outside of the camp. Though this banishment might sound like a punishment, it is actually an opportunity for ultimate healing. There is invaluable growth born from encountering our aloneness. When we venture outside of society and routine, we are able to take the space to engage the deeper truths of our being. This is the secret of the leprous Messiah within each of us, the part of us who courageously wears our sin on our skin, transforming our deepest plagues into our highest pleasure.
 
*
The Leper
 
Having sat alone for so long I hardly know
the harp-sound of home
hardly know the low
drone of another''s bones
brush against my bones
and yet, here in the outskirts
of city and society
a solitary symphony
sounds its strings
 
and I am held
in this spaciousness
that caves me in
complete
and friendless
but for this leprous skin
that lifts like wings
 
I am learning from the limitless sky
how to open
I am learning from the dry silt
how to sit
I am student to the hierophant of inner-voice
how to be still, small and thin
 
I am shunned away
and rubbed to shine
I am pestilence and plague personified
My skin bespeaks the thousand sins
each day I face with fortitude
each day I cleanse
 
banished to this haven,
more a palace than a punishment
 
exiled from the camp
left alone in craggy cleft
the hermit in me
writes and weeps
and surfaces her depths
 
the truth is a corridor
to be walked by limping feet
here where joy is exhumed
with a scalple of truth
and the letting loose of secrets
too burdensome to keep
 
I am stark and stricken
with this plague of expression.
Where skin meets sin
let the rejoicing begin
as I learn
the leper''s lesson.
 
1 Sanhedrin 98b
2 See Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 1
3 Likkutei Torah explains that a person affected by tzaraas will be "A man of great stature, of consummate perfection"