It is easy to consider the sidra Metzora as somehow ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘unpleasant’. A taboo subject. I have even experienced distraught Bar Mitzvah families asking if their sons could instead read something ‘more relevant’ – as though their children were not about to enter a phase in their lives when dermatology would be more important than theology, when spots and pimples and greasy skin and dandruff and pustules and scab tissue were not going constantly to occupy their thoughts. Even if beauty is only skin deep, as we try to assure our children, they know that a lack of beautiful skin is also a handicap in the social stakes. Even freckles can lead to becoming a social outcast. And I am still talking only of Leviticus Chapter 14, not of the dribbling sexual organs of Leviticus Chapter 15, or the stained clothing and bedding and furniture and all the justified and unjustified panics that these can lead to.
What could be more relevant to an up-and-coming teenager, of any gender, than this sidra?
Skin – our skin – is the largest and one of the most complex organs of our body. It grows with us, and sometimes we shrink inside it and it develops wrinkles. We don’t choose the colour, but we can try to change it, with tanning, tattoos and cosmetics. An illness in the blood beneath the skin can make itself manifest through to the surface – as can feelings. When the skin irritates, the whole body is affected and the mind inside it. What we actually in others see is basically a thin layer of dead skin – not as zombies, yet nevertheless a form of Walking Dead. When someone strokes our skin, the warm feeling penetrates deep inside. When we cut our skin, the pain dominates our thoughts and affects how we use our hands or other limbs. When an insect bites our skin the irritation is almost impossible to resist. When we burn ourselves, it is the skin which burns first. When we feel unclean, when we feel that something unpleasant is sticking to or sticking in or sticking out of our skin, then we are indeed in need of counselling and cleansing.
Maybe not with hyssop and bird blood and oil, as described at obsessive length in Leviticus Chapter 14, but, when it really itches, desperate people will try anything. A Psoriasis sufferer will invest large sums of money to go, perhaps, to the Dead Sea region, where the dry air and the heat are as important as the salts and the mud.
We feel the temperatures through our skin, the humidity, the wind direction, and the droughts. We feel pain from cuts and burns, from chafing. Insects bore into it to reach the bits of us that interest them, and the body’s defensive reactions lead to constant itching for days afterwards. We need a salve more than salvation, ointment more than atonement. The idea of changing clothing and regular washing, as mentioned in these chapters, is also something from which many a Teenager would benefit!
Adam said of the woman he encountered, ”This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” (Genesis 2:23) but in order to ”know” her properly (Gen. 4:1) he had to get, so to speak, under her skin. In Jerusalem, not far from Emek Refaim, is a moving museum in the former hospital where patients with Hansen’s Disease were provided with sanctuary and whatever treatment there was at the time – for they were isolated from the world around them.
When rot or spreading stains affect a house – action needs to be taken, and quickly. But that’s a problem that youngsters may not understand yet. Not everyone has a house, but we all have skin.
About the author:
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild serves congregation Or Chadasch in Vienna, Austria.
The above was formerly published as #320 in our Torah from Around the World series.