I’m running late on parshas. No matter. This is my life. If all I’m running late on are parshas, I’m doing pretty fine. So we’re at parsha Tazria, now. Birth, circumcision, and leprosy. Lots of leprosy.
My shul had its annual retreat this weekend, by a pond in the woods an hour west of Boston. I took a walk with the four-year-olds and assorted parents, down to the pond and back by way of a septic field. There was a power plant in the distance. The camp itself had a great white windmill, and it filled the air with a gentle, alien whooshing sound, until you got up close and heard also the sound of metal scraping metal which signaled something not quite right up there, in the mechanism. Walking back up toward the windmill someone said they couldn’t get excited about the parsha this week. “Next year they should pick the parsha and then pick the date.”
For me, the parsha doesn’t matter so much, because I have to say something about it whatever it is. I like that spiritual discipline, but it’s also a kind of freedom. I have the freedom not to care that the parsha be good or juicy or easy to get a grip on. The parsha is what the parsha is.
I hardly ever get to torah study on weekends in Boston, but I went to torah study at the retreat. The Rabbi who was teaching had a copy of Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger on the table, so of course I heartily approved. He told us that doctors haven’t identified any skin diseases that resemble the disease/s translated as leprosy in Leviticus, but they are certain that whatever it was, it was not leprosy, because by the time leprosy came to Israel, the laws in Leviticus were old, old news.
Our Torah is very old. I know that, but sometimes it is shocking all over again.
Here is what I want to say about skin:
There is always something wrong with your skin. Somewhere on your body, your skin is not intact. You have a cut from the kitchen knife because your mother called exactly as you were cutting that tomato and you were startled by the phone and your hand slipped. Or you were nervous before that big meeting and you bit a hangnail and now there’s a ragged edge on your left thumb. Or the cat was sick and you had to give her a pill and she didn’t like it and she bit your arm, not hard, but it broke the skin. Or you smashed your face into the doorknob while struggling with a three-year-old who did not want to put her rain boots on, and you split your lip. Sometimes when you’re stressed out you get eczema on your arms. Or you have psoriasis and sometimes it’s nothing and sometimes your elbows bleed. Or you didn’t always wear flipflops at the gym and you got athlete’s foot and it is stubborn. Or you have a wart, or a funny-looking mole you should see the dermatologist about. You have three chicken pox scars on your face. And dandruff. Sometimes the skin behind your ears weeps and crusts over, who knows why. You have razor burn. Or you cut yourself shaving with a brand new razor. There’s a patch of dry skin on your foot that just won’t go away. One of your toenails is half-fallen off from when you stubbed your toe that time. You got sunburnt on vacation and the skin is peeling off. You stepped in poison ivy, or nettles, or blundered into a hornet’s nest out near the compost bin or sat down in a red ant hill or stepped barefoot on a bumblebee or you got bedbugs or mosquitoes or lice or crabs or cold sores or chiggers or those horrible biting flies they have at Crane’s beach in July. Or you take a drug to stabilize your mood and it causes your skin to slough off.
There is always something wrong with your skin.
The sages of yore liked to explain all those skin-rules in Leviticus by saying they were really about how the state of your skin was supposed to reflect, somehow, the state of your soul. The disease called leprosy that was not leprosy befell those who did evil, especially those who spoke loshan hara. So the priest was called to witness the disease, the outward sign of internal impurity, and to call the sufferer to repent. Upon repentance the skin disease would heal and the sufferer could re-enter the realm of the holy.
It’s an attractive reading because it’s a hook to let us hang more meaning on skin diseases than they would otherwise seem to warrant in a holy book. We say “well, they couldn’t just have been talking about skin, right?”
As though we don’t obsess about skin ourselves.
What I learned from dandruff (and oh, my dandruff!) is that every day there are a million little things wrong with our bodies. Everything we see on the outside, all the bits that are weird or wrong or funny-colored -- that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the stuff that is ever-so-slightly wrong with us. The prayer we say in the bathroom says that if just one of the bits of living machinery in our bodies were closed up when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would die, but the amazing thing about our existence is that in fact exactly the opposite is true, on the micro level. Many, many pieces can stop working before “we” stop working. There’s change and flux and stoppages and drippages all over the place; there are cells gone wild with proliferation when they should kill themselves and cells that commit suicide when they should reproduce instead. Our bodies are constantly going wrong in all kinds of tiny, imperceptible ways.
We can see our skin, and other people can see it too, so the state of our skin is a kind of palimpset for how much has gone wrong with our bodies in general. That is why we obsess about our skin, and that is probably why the Israelites obsessed about skin too.
Of course I rebel against the whole idea of making someone suffering from a skin disease walk around on the outskirts of camp, on the margins of society, calling out “impure” as they go. But at least the Israelites seem to have had some mechanism for deciding that a skin disease was not of the type that conferred impurity, or was but had healed, and for letting people back in to the community, under the protection of the priest. Ask someone suffering from full-body psoriasis if they’d like a priest to be able to pronounce them pure and make people let them in to holy places and public swimming pools. We’re superstitious and superficial jerks, we humans, and we read things into the skin that are not there, and we trick each other with plastic surgery and makeup and airbrushing , and we cover up and scrape off and lighten and tan and buy prescription medications to make our eyelashes grow. We are superficial jerks now and I’m sure we were superficial jerks then. So then we get to the perennial question: is it better to be a straightforward jerk or a sublimated jerk?
Actually, that’s not the question. I’m riffing about skin, and how it’s always broken. ( We are always broken, like this world, shattered vessels all). I think this quality of our skin is miraculous -- its marvelous and ever-renewing ability to be both broken in places and yet, as a whole, fundamentally intact in its ability to perform its jobs. I’m fascinated by all the ways it can fail us and all the ways that look like failure but are actually success. ( I burnt the skin of my arm, but I did not burn the muscle. My skin protected my muscle from the burn. The skin is broken, but it was broken in the line of duty...)
Still. Most things about the skin part of the parsha are alien to me. The laws, the disease/s described, the rituals, the rules. They don’t add up. And why should I expect them to? Old laws from before the army of Alexander the Great brought leprosy back from India. I can’t quite imagine living in that world. It is long gone. Why should I expect all its records to make sense? These laws don’t have enough texture to them. They tell no story. You had to be there, as they say, to understand the sense they made.
That the Torah is sometimes utterly alien, even, sometimes, repulsive -- I like that, even though I used to hate it. It’s broadening. It takes effort and it induces vertigo.
I like God because God is the cure for existential vertigo but at the same time God induces existential vertigo. This is the tricky stereoscopic vision of Ahavat Hashem, the Love of God, and Yirat Hashem, the fear of God. Relationship with God is both/and.
Relationship with Torah is like that too. Perfectly familiar ( I think of Us Weekly: “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us”, I think of Head And Shoulders ads, and Creme de la Mer) and at the same time alien ( Purity and impurity, animal sacrifice, polygamy, miracles and wonders and smiting and slavery and deserts).
A rambling blog post, after all. Full of breakages and imperfections, like skin. I shall send it to the edge of the settlement until it has healed and is whole.
Ah. But it will never be whole, will it? We don’t get wholeness in this world. We just get to move in that direction. Wholeness belongs to the World-To-Come, Olam Ha-Ba, and who here knows what that even means? We say that God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust (that’s the center holding), but we should not expect to understand how that works or what it looks like (and that’s the vertigo). This sounds very mystical, and it is. So I’ll wind up with G.K. Chesterton on mysticism:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.
Strangeness and familiarity. Our skin, and our souls. Botox and lepers. Can you see both at once? It gives you a bit of a headache, I’ll admit. I find that Reality always gives me a headache, but it is a balm for the aching in my soul.