Have you ever struggled with your skin? If so, you are not alone. Anyone who has had a skin condition at any point in their life knows the emotional toll that acne, psoriasis, eczema and more can have on one’s mental health.
This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, is somewhat gruesome but also puzzling. For a religion that teaches the importance of developing inner beauty of our souls over all else, why is there such a focus on the ritual impurity of natural
and uncontrollable physical ailments of leprosy?
In the text of these sister parashiyot, the condition discussed is tzara’at, which is generally accepted as leprosy. The individual diagnosed with this condition is deemed impure (tameh) and must dwell outside of the camp until they are once again deemed pure (tahor). Almost the entirety of these parshiyot is dedicated to explaining the terms, conditions and scenarios for a person to become pure, and what to do if they should again fall ill.
The detailed explanation of the process sounds eerily similar to the COVID protocols that were (and are) ever-changing, regarding whether you needed to quarantine or test, and if so, for how long. As confusing as that process was for all of us, we were in it together. The doctors on the front lines, risking their lives to care for sick patients were — and are — super-mensches.
We see something similarly beautiful in Tazria-Metzora. Instead of “quarantining” those with tzara’at completely outside of the camp, there are detailed instructions of how the priest periodically visits the person inflicted with the skin disease to check on the healing or spread of their condition, and to provide care and a continued protocol for healing.
We learn in Leviticus 14:4 that the “healing potion” the priest provides to the leper consists of “two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop.” Why these particular items? In our midrash we learn, “It is simply because he had exalted himself like the cedar, that he was stricken with leprosy. As soon as he humbled himself like the hyssop, he was therefore cured through hyssop.” (Bereshit Rabbah 19:3)
The hyssop suggests that the individual had to display an emotional shift from a demeanor of hubris to a humbler demeanor for this healing salve to be effective. But why, then, would the cedar, the symbol of the individual’s pridefulness, be included in the salve? This supports the concept behind the Mussar middah (value) of Anavah (humility), that to achieve a balanced sense of humility, one must have both ends of the spectrum of humility (arrogance to self-debasement) within themselves.
The mental health, personality and actions of an individual have been long connected to skin conditions. Arachin 16a teaches: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani says that Rabbi Yohanan says: ‘Leprous marks come and afflict a person for seven sinful matters: For malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, for forbidden sexual relations, for arrogance, for theft, and for stinginess.’”
In a few weeks, we will read Parashat Beha’alotcha, which contains the most well-known story in Torah invoking the policies and procedures outlined in Tazria-Metzora. Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales after gossiping to Aaron about how her brother Moses married a Midianite woman. As we learn in Tazria-Metzora, Miriam is sent outside the camp, Moses prays for G-d to heal her, and once she is declared ritually pure, she rejoins the group as it continues on its journey.
I recently had a conversation with my dermatologist about an actual clinical connection between skin conditions and mental health/psychiatric conditions. The field of psychodermatology is a growing one, which examines the connection between mental health conditions and skin conditions. Often, skin conditions can be clinically linked to emotional distress: Emotional distress can cause a skin condition, and the presence of a skin condition can cause emotional distress.
The most important detail about the procedures detailed in this week’s parsha and in other texts pertaining to skin conditions is that if you are struggling with your skin, the importance of professionals to guide you in healing should not be underestimated and it often requires a multidisciplinary approach. As we each heal, learn and grow, I pray that we all have people — “priests,” if you will — to walk the healing path with us. PJC
Cantor Stefanie Greene is senior Jewish educator at The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.