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.