Parashat Tazria: Body and soul

Understandably many find the Passover story inspiring and the details of ritual purity due to skin ailments uninspiring in the extreme.

Exodus from Egypt (Edward Poynter) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Exodus from Egypt (Edward Poynter)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the greatest puzzles of being human is the gap between the exalted and mundane parts of our own nature.

The contradiction has been expressed by writers and poets in every generation: we can dream and imagine and create, yet at the same time we are constantly in thrall to the demands of our bodies. Humans are split creatures, who in the midst of writing prayers or composing love poems or exploring the outer reaches of mathematics, still have to go to the bathroom.

The traditional Jewish response to this conundrum is not to deny the physical, but to elevate it. Since we share the need for food with other animals, we offer blessings before we eat to distinguish ourselves, and sanctify the physical act of eating. 

With all the wisdom and depth of this approach, however, there remains a residue of paradox – how can we be both transcendent and shaped from dust?

This week the parasha highlights the contrast in remarkable ways. For it is Shabbat Hahodesh, the Shabbat that celebrates the beginning of the month of Nisan. Therefore we read about the first command of Passover.

FRAGMENT OF the Cairo Genizah – The Passover Haggadah. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)FRAGMENT OF the Cairo Genizah – The Passover Haggadah. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Passover itself embodies the spiritual liberation of the physical self. Even more poignantly, the story of the liberation is paired with the regular Torah reading for the week, which may be the most insistently corporeal in the entire Torah – Tazria. At the same time that we contemplate God’s freeing the nation from Egypt and the promise of a new life, we are worrying about diagnosing a discolored spot that appears on the skin of a possibly diseased individual.

Understandably many find the Passover story inspiring and the details of ritual purity due to skin ailments uninspiring in the extreme. Yet there is in the combination of the two stories an important understanding about life that engages us to this day.

Freud famously said that “much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” It wasn’t that Freud thought happiness was impossible, at least for a stretch, but that the conditions of life were such that happiness could never be a permanent condition of existing. There will always be difficulties, presented both by the external world and by one’s own psychodynamics, that will make perfect happiness a chimera.

A religious tradition – or any regimen for that matter – which promises certain bliss is certain to disappoint. It is based on the fraudulent assumption that the natural state of human beings is unalloyed happiness. But we are creatures of struggle, the world a place of mixed blessings, and alongside joy is frustration, disappointment and death. This is not a pessimistic view of the world, but a clear-eyed one.

The naive might read the Passover story as though God was liberating the Jewish people to a perfect life. They had been slaves, and now miraculous freedom would make them forever happy. We begin to suspect that is not the case when the Israelites complain on their own, lamenting the lack of meat, the conditions of the desert, the absence of Moses when up the mountain. Still, there remains a part of us that is rooting for the ideal.

Along comes Tazria, with granularly described blights and an almost clinical approach to illness. The joining of Tazria with Shabbat Hahodesh is the Torah’s way of announcing to us: You see, you are never free from the everyday mishaps and pains of life. You cannot escape the constraints of having a body by elevating your soul. This is the reality with which we all live.

You do not leave Egypt for Eden; you leave Egypt to live a life of meaning and purpose, which includes suffering and pain, both of the body and spirit.

Yet we treat the pains of this world as best we can, creating ever more meaning and love, and believe that ultimately there is the promise of goodness, of liberation and of a time when the anguish of this world will be no more. ■

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.