Tzaraas. Afflictions, in more pustular detail than you had ever imagined!
Have you ever gone to a paint store and tried to find the right shade of white – or as Procol Harum sang, a Whiter Shade of Pale? There are many, many shades of white, and concomitantly, many degrees of tzaraas, and places where tzaraas can appear.
White, a colour we now often and still associate (however incorrectly) with purity and virginity, in Torah is a harbinger of tumah, of what we bluntly consider to be religious impurity.
Anyone who has watched the inexorable growth of white mold on a cement floor, knows there is cause to worry. There is a contamination, a damp destabilization of a structure that must be attended to. And yet it seems, whilst dampness can indicate a dis-ordering, a presence of tumah, in Torah, water is an agent of spiritual cleansing. Fire and water – both carry negative and positive potential.
It would seem, as we read Tazria (and beyond) that the priests, the Kohanim spent a goodly amount of time vigilantly, some would say obsessively, guarding against any spread of tumah, thus ensuring a timely separation of what is tumah from what is ritually pure, or tahor. As our priestly agents we may be inclined to wonder at such obsession. And yet.
We read that beyond eruptions of skin and contamination of clothing a building which holds persistent tumah, must be destroyed. We are taught that we are to scrape and pare away any sign of what we might today call mildew or rot, pare it down as an oncologist would strive for clear margins. However if the tumah continues to seep we must go beyond such scrapings – and now destroy that building.
Those of us who own homes know that very often it is water – that most beneficent and most dangerous of elements, that can cause harm to our homes. Seeping, weeping and creeping, water overflows, floods all barriers. Flooded basements, lifting tiles, water lines showing the eruv of damage. It is always the water, I say to a friend whose design of their beautiful homes seem always to be challenged by the inexorable surging dripping power of water! Water, water everywhere!!
But if we think of this house in Tazria as our own bayit, our body, our physical home for our soul, our neshamah, we may read this passage more carefully. Leave the drainage pipes to Mike Holmes – God is concerned for our souls!
Many of us have felt a tumah of our souls – be it a tumah of alienation or affliction. Sometimes we have needed to separate ourselves from our family or our community. We have needed time/space to affect our recovery, our balance. Midrash Rabbah teaches us there are 4 stages of tzaaras which are tied to 4 levels of punishment if the hard work of teshuvah, of forgiveness, is not made.
- First Stage. Remove the affected stones only. When we understand there is tumah present on/in our bayit, we much try to remove the cause of infection.
- Second stage: If those measures do not remove the tzarras, we must tear down the entire house. Does this requirement demand we be torn down –die? Chas v’sholem. Heaven forbid. I think of this stage as kriah, that deep rent we make in our clothing when a loved one dies. Our familiar place in the world is destabilized, we are rent from the fabric of our family, and tearing apart is a necessary stage of mourning.
- Stage Three: We consider mikvah. We consider entering waters of taharah, which we pour over both the dead and the living to signal purification, renewal, a rejoining of family and community.
- Stage Four: If we refuse to do the work of teshuvah – and prefer the taint of tumah in our soul, we may find ourselves alone. Our refusal to understand how we have not addressed our own tumah creates the opposite of sanctuary – we may be isolated, lonely – and stubborn.
Tazria is the equivalent of lying on Freud’s couch. Lie down, examine one’s soul and pare away the rot – so that we may choose life.