Icky skin diseases consume most of our attention in this week’s Torah portion, but the cause and effect probably aren’t what you think.
Our parsha goes into great detail about a handful of different skin afflictions, collectively called “tzaraat,” all subject to inspection by the priests. (The theme is expanded in next week’s parsha to include similar afflictions in clothing and houses.) But while tzaraat is usually defined as “leprosy,” the details aren’t hygenic – in fact, the main consequence of tzaraat is “tumah,” being unable to bring sacrifices to the Mishkan — and this only when the tzaraat is in a state of flux (no pun intended). If you’re completely covered in it, the priest judges you “tahor” (pure/clean/) and that’s that, at least until the tzaraat begins to recede.
(When I teach this to 12-year-olds, I describe tzaraat as “spiritual cooties.” My teacher Rabbi Jack Gabriel tells me that expresses it nicely.)
Homiletically, our rabbis and sage have interpreted tzaraat as the consequence of lashon hara – otherly known as snark, gossip, trash talk – in that it makes us unfit to draw close to G?d. In light of the beginning of Genesis, when G?d created everything out of words, we see the importance our tradition places on speech (not to mention writing!).
These days, what with texting and pop-ups and the interwebs, words are a cheap commodity. It’s not always easy to see their sacredness; certainly not in the way of our Torah ancestors, for whom “closeness to God” was a spatial, rather than spiritual, concern. When words lose their sacredness, however, so do we. Snark is easy when sarcasm and creative character assassination are the coin of the media realm. But Jews don’t do things the easy way — we do them the meaningful way. For example: PunkTorah” can be re-rendered into funky Yiddish as “punkt orah” – a point of light. So let light flow from our mouths, and kindness from our words; and may these small actions help bring our banged-up world into holy and peaceful shalom.
Neal Ross Attinson teaches b’nei mitzvah students in Sonoma, California (AKA “Anatevka-among-the-vines”) and blogs at http://metaphorager.net. He feels uncomfortable without a pad and pencil.