In this week’s Torah portion as in last week’s Torah portion, we read the priestly laws related to purification. There are a number of different scenarios in which a person could become impure, kind of like having the cooties, and require purification in order to rejoin the group and or the religious rites. Over the years, I have heard and read many commentaries about the exclusion. Scholars puzzle over the exact nature of the skin diseases, and why individuals were thought to be unclean from the various situations as described in this parshah. I’ve heard people speak about the exclusion. But, what really caught my attention this year was the move toward inclusion. The religious purification rites seem to be written in detail so as to instruct how individuals could rejoin the group. I think it says something about our human nature, what we care about and what we fear, that we read the exclusion with questioning and concern. No one likes to feel isolated, outside the group or alone. We take for granted that we should include everyone when we can.
While ritual impurity isn’t a concern for most of us in modern life, last week’s and this week’s parshah set an example for inclusion: whenever someone is separated, we are looking to help them find their way back to the group.
How well do we do at including everyone in our communities? We would probably agree that anyone with a physical or mental illness, varying gender or sexual identities, anyone of any race, color or age in welcome in our schools, churches, post offices, theaters, museums or other public spaces, yet we may not notice the ways in which certain members of our society get left out, and feel themselves to be isolated. In my first year teaching Kindergarten in a public school, I had a student with Cerebral Palsy. He, his wheelchair and aide could physically be with the class and seemed to be following along what we were doing very well. It took time for me to understand that having him in the room doing what he could like the other children wasn’t full inclusion. I needed to use his learning language, a picture word system, and incorporate his language into the classroom in order for him to really be a part of the learning and the community.
Let’s do an experiment together. As we go about our lives, besides noticing when we feel left out because of something that makes us feel a little different, let’s notice all the things that we do and take for granted. Let’s try to notice all the ways that someone in our society can feel isolated or left out. For example getting anywhere away from the house is hard if you can’t drive. We never see those people, so it is easy to not think about them. With this sharpened awareness and empathy, let’s also look at how each of us can do something one way or another that honors the sentiment that we all belong, that there almost always paths for re-entry, for inclusion in our communal lives.
Did you look in the mirror today and wonder about something you saw on your face? Or maybe you caught a new spot growing on your body?
We spend a lot of time thinking about our skin, and noticing the details. Why? Perhaps it’s because skin is the boundary between our sense of self and the rest of the world. Our form begins and ends with skin. The skin is our most outward presentation of our selves, the part of us that is seen before anything else. In the parshah Tazria (Leviticus 12-13), we read about the specific criteria that a Priest would use to diagnose a skin ailment to determine if the individual was ritually pure and therefore able to participate in ritual offerings, or ritually impure and needing to following the purification process.
If skin is the boundary between a sense of self and the world, maybe it does merit this week’s chapter in the Torah. Perhaps through laws of impurity, the Torah is calling our attention to the way we negotiate the boundaries of our selves and others.
From the story of Miriam in Numbers (12: 1-16) the rabbis derived the interpretation that the Biblical skin ailment represents a spiritual ailment, a punishment for speaking badly about someone else, for spreading gossip. As gossip quickly spreads, so do skin diseases. Though a spiritual ailment affects a deeper aspect of our humanity, not just our surface, could the analogy of gossip being like a spreading skin ailment also be used to understand the nature of gossip as a surface way of thinking about another? Isn’t gossip often the most surface information we can have about a person? What we hear or say about a person, doesn’t even touch the skin, it floats between people.
Perhaps spending time outside the camp isn’t only an ancient version of a “time out,” but also an opportunity to reconnect with one’s inner world. If a skin ailment and gossip can bring our attention to our surface and to our outer worlds, maybe time alone with one’s self directs our intention back inward, to find the divine sparks inside ourselves, to reconnect with the part of ourselves that can lost in a crowd. Maybe reminding ourselves about the boundaries between our inner world and the community, between how we appear on the surface and our value as human beings also reminds us that those of which we speak are individuals like ourselves with more to them then what we can say or hear about them. They are individuals with divine sparks too, not only figures who we encounter in the community playing peripheral roles in our own lives. Maybe spending time outside the community, reminds us of how hard it can be to be so separate, and the responsibilities we have to be more inclusive when we return to the group.
Maybe the exact symptoms of the skin and diagnoses aren’t the important message. Maybe it is a reminder that just as we know that wrinkles, freckles, beauty marks, pimples, rashes, and other assorted skin ailments do not represent who we feel ourselves to be as human beings, that what we say and what we hear, and what we judge about others’ external appearances is not representative of who they are as human beings.