Perhaps no malady worried our purity-focused ancestors more than tzora’at – perhaps leprosy, or another skin disorder, or a hybrid spiritual-physical affliction. Whatever tzora’at was, a sufferer was sent on retreat from the community, and the priest determined when it was “safe” to return. What meaning could this ancient relic of this week’s Torah portion (Metzora) offer today?
On the surface, this portion underscores the importance and healing power of temporary seclusion. Retreats and rests to restore health – whether in body, heart, mind or spirit – ought not be luxuries: they are vital to both individual and community life. When an individual needs healing, the whole community needs that healing to occur. A contagion is only the most obvious physical reminder that we’re all connected.
True as this understanding may be, however, it’s only skin deep (pun intended). The seclusion of tzora’at evokes that sometimes we need seclusion to shed our skin safely. Like a snake that grows by shedding its skin, we humans grow when we become vulnerable, shedding surface protections. In our most exquisite moments of vulnerability, we may need a “time out” to shed, feel, heal and integrate before we can feel safe. This week’s Torah portion hints that this dynamic is not a weakness or liability, but an opportunity we should embrace for its transformational potential and enduring strength.
It’s fitting that this portion comes as a lead-up to Passover. The Passover tradition of removing from our homes all chametz –literally “sourness,” for the sour mash yeast that makes bread rise – invites an inner parallel process of removing inner sourness that arises within us. We do so not only because our ancestors fled Egypt in haste and had no time for bread to rise, but also because the Passover season is when we make room to receive Torah’s wisdom anew at Shavuot. To make room for new, we must make space.
Enter tzora’at. Perhaps we need to shed old skin now, so we can grow. Perhaps we need to make room now, so we can prepare to receive something new. Whatever affliction we may perceive in our lives or in our world, before Passover every tzora’at beckons us out of Mitzrayim (Egypt, literally “the narrow place”). Every affliction is a call to journey.
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that every descent can be for the sake of ascent (yerida tzorach aliyah). We can’t toss a ball up without first lowering our hand: it descends for the sake of ascent. We “went down” into Egypt so we could rise even higher. So too our tzora’at and chametz, which invite us to cleanse and emerge pure.
In this merit, may these weeks before Passover inspire us to shed our skin and lift our inner sourness: we have a wondrous journey ahead!