One of the most difficult things a rabbi or cantor has to do is to look into the eyes of a 12-yearold child and tell him that, because of the bar mitzvah date his parents chose two years earlier, his Torah portion will deal with topics such as scaly white skin disease, childbirth, menstruation and nocturnal emissions (not to mention house mold and mildew on clothes). Mmmm, wet dreams, periods and skin scunge: everything a pubescent boy or girl least wants to think about. But there it is, smack in the middle of the Torah: the double parshah Tazria-Metzora, which focuses on the bodily conditions that cause ritual impurity and the processes by which a person makes himself or herself pure again.
The subject matter is yucky enough, but a lot of folks are put off by the idea that naturally occurring physiological phenomena can be a reason for declaring someone unfit for participation in religious activities. You have to look a little bit under the surface to understand the thinking behind the prohibitions and instructions: the ancient priests saw discharges from the genitals and even the skin disease as an escape of the forces of life, a manifestation of death and it was contact with death that made someone ritually impure. Remember, too, that being ritually impure has never been equated with being physically unclean. The compilers of the Torah knew that things like nocturnal emissions and periods were facts of life and that Israelite laypeople would experience them regularly. They saw nothing sinful, evil or dirty about these natural functions.
Of course, hundreds of years later, the Sages had to get into the act and declare that tzara’at (often translated as “leprosy” but unrelated to that disease as we know it today), the growth of unwanted matter on skin, walls and clothes, was indeed a metaphor for sinful behavior. In the Talmud, Arachin 16a lists seven reasons someone might be afflicted with tzara’at: gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sex, arrogance, theft and envy. (Which one of these did a 12-year-old commit to earn her first acne outbreak?) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in the 19th century, said that tzara’at must have been a spiritual illness, as it was treated by priests, not doctors.
Modern thinkers have pulled back from the Talmud’s extremes and tend to focus on gossip as the most apt behavioral parallel to Biblical tzara’at. This makes sense, because gossip is one of those failings so prevalent in human society that it’s practically a physiological fact of life. If passing on a juicy tidbit caused people to break out in scaly white patches, most of us would be covered with psoriasis from time to time. Perhaps Tazria-Metzora can be seen as a less toxic text if we view it as a spur to be mindful of the connection between what we say, what we do and how we feel physically. Each of us is imperfect now and then; the idea is to recognize the problem, clean up after it and keep moving forward.
—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah