Metzora: What is the Gift of Your Symptom?

This week we read of how the plague of tzaarat, biblical leprosy, is not limited to skin, but also appears on houses and clothing. The text reads, “When you come into the land of Canaan which I give to you as a possession, and I give you the plague of leprosy of the house...." (Leviticus 14:34) One thing that is striking here is the language of gifting that is used. First there is the reference to the gifting of the land, and then the gifting of the plague on the houses. But what kind of a gift is a plague? The subtle wording of the passage begs the question, ''How can a plague be a gift?''
One way we can start to answer that question is to look at what plagues us in our own everday lives. Today we call our common plagues ''symptoms''. As a therapist, I often have clients who come to me bemoaning this or that symptom, from over-eating to tooth-grinding to reckless behavior. The symptom is always the bad guy, the noxious interloper they want to get rid of – and fast. Of course, we all want to be plague-and-symptom-free. But sometimes in our rush to get rid of our symptoms we lose the invaluable gifts they came to offer.
Take Sara, a woman suffering from insomnia. She had tried everything, sleeping pills, smoking marijuana, reading boring textbooks in bed. She was still painfully rest-less and wanted help. I asked her to spend a week pondering the question, “What is the gift of this symptom?”
She returned the next session with a remarkable story. She said that she realized that the insomnia''s gift was that it protected her from dreaming. For when she dreamed she would often have terrifying nightmares of a childhood trauma. The insomnia both protected her, as well as alerted her. It stood as a signal to the fact that she was covering up something much deeper. Almost immediately upon realizing this, her sleeplessness ceased. It was as if the crucial information her insomnia had come to communicate had finally been received and no longer needed to blare its message.
Sara began to grapple with her trauma. And though it was an arduous process, it was deeply rewarding work that vastly improved the entirety of her life. Her insomnia was the gift that opened up the doorway to her deepest healing.
Now, let''s return to our teaching on the leprosy of the walls with this in mind. The Torah''s central commentator, Rashi, has an enigmatic response to our verse about the ''gift'' of the leprosy. He notes that the gift is a reference to the fact that there was gold hidden in the houses by its previous owners. When they tore down the plagued walls they discovered the treasure.
This Rashi can be read from a psycho-spiritual perspective to say that when there is a discoloration on the surface of our lives, when there is a symptom, it is an indication of something precious and vital hidden underneath. The symptomatic plauge prompts us to to look deeper. And in the process we find gold. For, in the end, our greatest treasure is the joy that is born from growth and transformation.
Next time you are beset by a symptom, instead of poping a pill or chasing after a quick fix, take the time to stop and reframe the pain. Ask yourself, “What is the gift of this symptom?” For, in essence, a symptom is nothing short of a correspondence from your soul and a gift from God. It is an invaluable communication from our deepest self and divinest heights...a whisper worth listening to.
The Gift
The house went jade
And heaved like yeast
It pussed and swelled
cursed and grieved
A pestilence on plaster
A plague on skin
And how we all wept
when the walls finally fell in
but wept not with sorrow
not shame, not remorse
yes, all those things,
but wept with much more
wept with the knowledge
that we’d been addressed
written a warning
connected to, expressed
As if we could touch
The script-scribling hand
That wrote on the surface
That rank reprimand
The hand has decreed
  • Never mind the disease -
Has given a sign,
Has spoken
Write on our walls
whatever You will
tell us were wrong
judge us our guilt
What do we care
if the content be kind
Your Will has been spoken
a token of treasure
buried inside
Whether succor staff or striking rod
Curse is comfort
When cursed by God
So with grace let us welcome
Your Hand in our midst
and usher in an era when
Affliction is a Gift