"The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the skin of the flesh a sore ..." (Leviticus 13:1-2).
Tazria is not my favorite Torah portion. There are no "bad" Torah portions -- there's good in all of them! -- but I can admit that this is one with which I have struggled over the years. Some years I struggle with the teachings about childbirth. This year I got bogged-down in the verses about this skin condition and its treatment. Fortunately, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet -- Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- came to my rescue.
The Sfat Emet looks at the half-verse I cited above, and enters into it with a kind of Hebrew pun. He makes a link between the Hebrew words 'or (עור), meaning skin, and 'or (אור), meaning light. With this move, he radically transforms what Torah is talking about: suddenly this is no longer about an illness that generates sores in the skin, but a spiritual illness which does something to a person's inner light.
In Bereshit / Genesis, when the first humans are exiled from Eden, God makes them garments of skins. Our mystical tradition reads this creatively to suggest that we didn't have skins at all until we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- before we ate from that tree we were garbed in pure light. At havdalah, when we hold up our hands to the flame, we see glimmers of light reflected in our fingernails -- maybe a reminder of the light in which we were once clothed, or maybe a reminder of the light in which we will be clothed in the world to come, since there's also a teaching from the Zohar that in the world to come we will wear garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life. (I've written about these ideas before.)
So: Torah is talking about a physical affliction in one's skin, but the Sfat Emet is (mis)reading it as being about an affliction which keeps one's light from shining.
I've been thinking a lot lately about skin as what covers us and keeps us safe from the world. Have you ever had times in your life when you've felt especially "thin-skinned," especially vulnerable to harsh words or difficult realities? Sometimes I've come away from a week on retreat feeling that the week of prayer and study and community and safety has made my skin feel too thin for the "regular" world. Often by the time I get through the intensive spiritual work of the Days of Awe, my skin feels thin and my heart feels close to the surface, even exposed.
Skin keeps us safe. But -- at least according to the Sfat Emet -- it shouldn't keep us from shining. You might remember that when Moshe came down from Sinai his face glowed, maybe because his inner light was able to shine through his phyical skin. It's as though his skin became transparent and everyone was able to see his true light. And it's worth remembering that his light was too much for the people, so he had to veil to protect them from the radiance he acquired as a result of his experience of God. Sometimes people don't want to see radiance. Maybe it scares them, or reminds them of how their own light has been kept from shining.
For the Sfat Emet, tzara'at represents a closing or clogging of our pores, which results in our light not being able to shine through. (It's noteworthy that the root of the word tzara'at suggests narrowness and constriction.) Tzara'at is a metaphor for what happens when we sin, when we miss the mark: we become clogged or closed-off and our light can't shine.
What kinds of things -- experiences, relationships, encounters -- make you radiant?
Can you feel it when your inner light is shining through? What does that feel like to you?
What gets in the way of your inner light shining?
When something is blocking the flow of that inner light, how do you cleanse yourself -- what can you do in any or all of the four worlds of body, emotion, thought, and spirit -- so that your light can shine again?
This is a teaching I gave over yesterday morning during Torah study at the P'nai Tikvah Shabbaton in Las Vegas where I was privileged to be scholar-in-residence for the weekend. Deep thanks to Rabbi Yocheved Mintz and the P'nai Tikvah community for inviting me.