The Torah portion of Tazria discusses sickness and healing, concerning a person who contracts tzaraat. In the case of tzaraat, what manifests as a physical symptom of the skin is not remedied through medical practice. The sick person does not see a doctor, though physicians are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah. Instead a cohen, or priest, must diagnose the condition. The healing comes from a period of isolation, followed by immersion in a ritual bath and the bringing of an offering to the Temple. Through the depiction of a spiritual treatment to a physical ailment, this Torah portion presents a tremendous opportunity to connect to the roots of illness and come to true healing.
In the tradition of the Torah, physical well being is inherently linked
to spiritual balance. When a person is out of balance spiritually, he or
she cannot be a vessel for Divine light, the flow of G-d given life
force which sustains all of existence. The result is a physical
manifestation of limited life energy, which appears as physical
sickness, as in the case of the Torah's description of tzaraat. The
symbolic ritual process of healing which is described for one with
tzaraat bypasses the physical aspect of the ailment and fixes the
spiritual root of the problem.
The Talmud pinpoints seven spiritual sources of tzaraat, with one being a
condition called "tzarut ayin," or narrowness of vision. Narrow vision
means not paying attention to the wider ramifications of one's actions.
It is a decision-making process guided purely by the desire for
immediate gratification, and not a larger plan to reach an extensive
goal. In this sense, tzarut ayin is the opposite of wisdom. In Pirkei
Avot, it says, "Who is truly wise? One who foresees the result." In the
Talmud, this is explained to mean: "One who understands what will come,
events that will result, and is therefore wary of them."
In the Torah, the skin blight that appears on the skin of the person
with tzaraat is called a "nega." There is a teaching that the difference
between oneg (bliss) and nega (affliction) is the placement of the
letter ayin. In Hebrew, the name of the letter ayin also is the word for
eye. With oneg, the ayin comes before the rest of the word, symbolizing
foresight and 'looking before one leaps.' This is what leads to the
joy. Nega, however, has the ayin at the end of the word. This can teach
that a person comes to low places because their vision only follows an
action, and does not precede it.
Spiritual brokenness expresses itself in the physical world as in the
case of tzaraat. Physical brokenness impairs one’s ability to make the
proper spiritual choices. Just as a person has a body and a soul, this
entire physical world is animated by the divine light of God that flows
down from ever higher worlds. Damage done in the natural world has
traumatic effects on the spiritual world, and vice versa. This portion
about the affliction of tzaraat can be understood in a global context.
“Every person is a small world, and the world is a giant person." In a
macrocosmic sense, we can see the whole of humanity as one being, and
apply the same lessons. Humanity today suffers from an illness, and the
planet suffers as a result. The Torah offers a healing for this
The spiritual blemish of tzarut ayin, narrow vision, characterizes many
environmentally unsound practices today. We live in a time when
computers can calculate predictions of changes in organism population
and 'bioenergetics'. Certain scenarios of future development clearly
point to a disastrous plunge in resources and thus human population, in
future years. The Jewish view of wisdom prohibits us from creating a
situation where we will have major population crises, and we should have
the foresight to prevent this. Otherwise, like the person with tzaraat,
people will not experience true oneg (bliss), only its distorted
People’s priorities are out of balance in areas as major as energy
sourcing and waste management. The search for cheap non fossil-fuel
energy leads many countries to rely on nuclear power, which creates
radioactive waste that persists for thousands of years. The desire to
immediately remove something unwanted from our narrow field of vision is
what rationalizes the unsustainable use of land as garbage dumps.
People have confused their priorities in life because the light is
broken and the world is out of balance. Fixing the world requires people
to re-focus their priorities.
Western environmentalism posits two main problems with environmental
degradation. One, that we will harm ourselves by changing the climate
and polluting the air and water. The second, that we will run out of
resources and then we will not have more to use. For example, although
reducing energy use is an important goal of many environmental
campaigns, getting people to simply “reduce” is more easily said than
done. Use of all forms of energy and electricity sources in America have
increased steadily since the 1980’s, and continue to rise. For this
reason, modern environmentalism champions the search for “alternative
energy sources.” This approach tries to fix the brokenness without
changing human lifestyles. While technical approaches to current
problems are important, consciousness change will also be necessary for
true tikkun (repair) to occur. Such an approach promises to restore
balance to the spiritual worlds as well as the physical.
A more expansive spiritual perspective sees harming the physical world
as damaging the spiritual world, because the physical world is an
outgrowth of the spiritual worlds. Since the opposite of ‘narrow vision’
is ‘wider vision’, we must ask; how broadly can we expand our outlook?
Will we stop our foresight and discussions of ‘sustainability’ here in
the physical realm? Or will we see beyond that as well to the spiritual
dimensions we are disrupting and thus enable fixing of those worlds?
Furthermore, how can we expand our vision to these worlds, and how do we
go about fixing the ‘spiritual environment’? The answer is in the
In the Torah’s first description of the Garden of Eden, that idealized
environment, humans were placed there "l'ovdah u'lshomrah", to work and
protect it.But the trees in the Garden of Eden do not need pruning or
irrigation. We learn instead that the direct object of 'to protect it'
is Torah, which means spiritual pursuit and balance. By ‘protecting’ the
Torah, one can find instruction for balanced living in the world.
Similarly, work in the Garden of Eden is spiritual work, keeping the
spiritual instruction from G-d.
Though the world is in a state of physical and spiritual imbalance, it
is not the result of G-d's mistake or neglect. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
(Israel, 20th cent.) in teaching about prayer mentioned that within a
process, something is always imbalanced. At every stage of life,
something is not in harmony. This is because imbalance leads to new
growth. Imbalance of global climate change can lead us to a new
awareness and responsibility, to change the way we live. Spiritual
imbalance and global ecological imbalance are an opportunity for growth
towards sustainability, spiritually as well as physically.
Suggested Action Items:
In order to prevent ourselves from being constricted to 'tzarut ayin' or narrow vision, there are a few things we can do:
• Learn about Life Cycle Analysis to expand the way you understand
products and resources you use: your impact on where it comes from, how
you use it, and where it will go when you are done with it.
• To deepen your spiritual-physical environmental awareness, ground
one aspect of your environmental approach in a mitzvah: For example, if
you are conscientious about overusing resources, give tzedakah (charity)
in place of a material item you would have bought. Connecting to the
Torah’s instructions for this physical world helps to bring the
spiritual balance that protects the physical world.
Rabbi Natan Greenberg is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel.