Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Tazria

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

The Spiritual Dimensions of Healing – Tazria 5784

Before the global pandemic, most people in developed nations didn’t think much about plagues. Clean water, sewage infrastructure, refrigeration, and decent basic medical care ensured that the scourges of the Bible and Middle Ages seemed like a distant memory. Because of that, the extended passages in Leviticus about Biblical leprosy often struck a modern reader as antiquated, bizarre, or completely irrelevant. We now recognize that humanity may never escape periodic plagues.

Our ancestors bequeathed us important insights about wellness and pandemic. In Leviticus 13:2, we read: “When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006)

Illness never affects the body alone, for our emotions, thoughts, and physicality all influence one another, something that a great many ancient cultures recognized. For a time, Western medicine was so focused on the biological aspects of illness that it neglected to consider the whole person; thankfully, today we are returning to the wisdom of our forebears. At the same time, Judaism has usually taken an empirical approach to life, testing religious tenets with the best science of the day. We find this addressed by the 13th century French Bible scholar, Hezekiah bar Manoah (known as the Chizkuni), who wants to know if all priests have the appropriate scientific background to render a decision that is both spiritually and medically warranted.

“Are then all priests experts by birth? The system works as follows: When the problem of tzoraat [Biblical leprosy] arises, an expert who has studied the subject is consulted. The priest accepts the superior knowledge of this expert, and makes a ruling based on what he has been told by the expert who has examined the afflicted person. It is irrelevant whether the priest is truly familiar or not with the symptoms the Torah has taught us.” (trans. by Eliyahu Munk)

Even as Chizkuni informs us that science mattered 800 years ago in the diagnosis and treatment of illness, we must turn elsewhere to discover the meaning of our illness. How are we to contextualize our illness? Even if a disease has a natural cause, there are often moral dimensions to it, such as which values a society emphasizes when creating public health policy. Disease normally exists in a wider arena than a simple medical understanding can provide.

There is a particularly profound comment penned by Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz, a 17th century mystic, which compares the garments worn by the priests with those Adam and Eve first wore. The purpose of the priestly garments was likhvod u’l’tiferet, for dignity and adornment, and were “to symbolize the כתנות אור, (k’tonet or) garments of light, which Adam and Eve wore before they had to exchange them for כתנות עור (also k’tonet or but in the Hebrew, there is a one letter difference) garments of skin, after the sin…there is a mystical dimension to this comparison, which is rooted in Kohelet 2:13…The message there is that God makes purity emerge even out of impurity.” (trans. by Eliyahu Munk)

I have sometimes asked people with chronic or terminal conditions what they have learned from their illness. Usually, they have something profound to offer, for they have chosen to use their biological ailment as a source of personal wisdom and growth…but not always. Some people do not learn from their sickness. The difference comes down to whether we ourselves wish to transform an unpleasant medical fate into “another darn growth opportunity,” as a friend of mine calls these moments. In other words, it is not God alone who “makes purity emerge out of impurity.” No matter what challenges we are confronted with, there is always a spiritual dimension of meaning-making by which we can transform and redeem even these most difficult moments. Would we prefer not to have to deal with any chronic illness? Of course! Since that is not always an option, however, our Torah portion reminds us that like Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale, there is always gold to be spun from our burdens.