Break Through

Parashat Tazria-Mezora 5781

by Meir Sendor

In the blessing for Torah learning that we pray before the Shema we ask HaShem: “on behalf of our ancestors who trusted in You, and You taught them the rules of life, so, too, be gracious to us and teach us.” And in the last blessing of the Amidah, we thank HaShem:

סדר רב עמרם גאון (הרפנס) סדר תפילה

כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה’ אלהינו תורת חיים


For in the light of Your Face You have given us, HaShem our God, the Torah of Life.

Torah is our guide for living a physically and spiritually healthy life. Many of the mitzvot of the Torah instruct us in wise practices related to hygiene and healing, and in the authentic rabbinic tradition life and physical health are supreme values. Maimonides, in Hilkhot Deot, notes that “since being healthy and whole is among the paths of HaShem, for it is impossible to understand and know anything in the knowledge of the Creator when one is sick, therefore one must distance oneself from things that destroy the body and conduct oneself according to things that create health and healing (4:1).”

God promises us:

שמות פרק טו פסוק כ

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אִם־שָׁמ֨וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֜ע לְק֣וֹל׀ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ וְהַיָּשָׁ֤ר בְּעֵינָיו֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְהַֽאֲזַנְתָּ֙ לְמִצְוֹתָ֔יו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֖ כָּל־ חֻקָּ֑יו כָּֽל־הַמַּֽחֲלָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֤מְתִּי בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֹא־אָשִׂ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְקֹוָ֖ק רֹפְאֶֽךָ:


…If you really listen to the Voice of HaShem your God, and do what is straight in His Eyes, and pay attention to His Mitzvot and keep His Rules, all the illnesses that I placed upon Egypt I will not place on you, for I am HaShem your Healer.

This week’s double parashah also focuses on illness and healing as a field of divine revelation. The illness of tzara’at, a skin disease of the biblical era, is understood in rabbinic tradition to have a psycho-spiritual as well as physiological basis. Some commentators consider tzara’at, and illness in general, to be a form of punishment and atonement through the body for various moral and spiritual sins. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur insists, however, that when approached with insight, it’s possible to regard illness itself, painful as it is, as part of a deeper healing process leading us to spiritual as well as physical wholeness. He connects the skin afflicted with tzara’at back to the creation account of Adam and Eve:

After the sin of Adam, it says that God made for them “coats of skin.” That is, He gave them a screen and a hiddenness from all things… After the sin they could not recognize the light within the darkness except by work and effort to remove the separating screen. Plagues come on account of this skin… Because of sins the windows of the body are blocked and plagues attack – a plague is called “closed-up” in Aramaic. But the essence of a plague is for the sake of healing… for by illness the negativity is drawn out from the innerness of a person. And certainly a person of wholeness should rejoice in this, that he acknowledges his lowliness and by this merits to be purified from the impurity that had been hidden within him (Sefat Emet, Vayikra, 5635)

The Gerer Rebbe takes tzara’at as emblematic of many illnesses. He operates with a concept of catharsis: illness is generated by negativities “closed up” within the body, and serves to alert us to these hidden problems. By the process of healing, which includes moral and spiritual introspection as well as medical therapies, we can identify, purge and expel the moral as well as physical poisons and pathogens of illness that had been hidden within. The Rebbe notes that in Midrash Rabbah Bereshit it says that according to Rabbi Meir the original garments of Adam and Eve were “ כתנות אור  — coats of light,” the aura body, but after their sin they materialized into “ כתנות עור – coats of skin.” Through the full process of illness, introspection and healing the inner light that was hidden can break through and shine out (Sefat Emet 5641)

Not all illness is atonement, and not all illness is redemptive. Genetic diseases, for instance, are not atonement for some personal sin, certainly not.  The flip side of the notion that we have some psycho-spiritual control over healing can be a sense of guilt or despair when the healing doesn’t go easily or well. But the principle of regarding an acute crisis as an alert to internal systemic weakness that calls to be addressed, and turning it into an opportunity for deeper fixing, can be helpful when judiciously applied, in personal health of the body and also in the health of the body politic. In the healing ritual for tzara’at, the afflicted person is instructed to sit outside the camp and call out to those who approach “impure, impure! (Lev 13:45).” It sounds cruel, adding insult to injury. But the rabbis explain that it’s quite the contrary: “this teaches that he needs to inform the public so the public will seek divine mercy for him (Moed Katan 15a).” The full healing process is social as well as personal, bringing the community together in compassion and solidarity.

This week we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day – the miracle of the rebirth of our nation in our homeland. This year Yom HaAtzmaut comes at time in which our nation is politically splintered within and still, after four elections in two years, unable to find effective leadership to guide us forward in solidarity to handle the serious challenges facing us. But this crisis is also an opportunity to work together to identify our internal problems, purge ourselves of small-souled tribalism, of the self-centered sense of religious and hedonistic entitlement, and self-centered corruption, and come to understand and realize the moral and spiritual principles that bind us together as the family Am Yisrael. It’s an opportunity, in mutual compassion and solidarity, to enable the inner light of the soul of Am Yisrael to break through and shine forth.

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi addresses his great poem “Zion” to the Land of Israel itself. It was written at a time in which Jews of the Land were suffering in wars between Crusaders and Muslims. He envisions himself flying to the Land of Israel, walking its hills and valleys, visiting its holy places, breathing the air and its fragrance, sipping its water, tasting its fruits. At the end of his life, he did, in fact, try to make Aliyah – but we don’t know if he made it or not. He reached Alexandria, boarded a ship for the last leg of the journey – and is lost in the mists of history. His great poem ends with this vision, addressed to the Land:

Happy is he who waits and arrives to see

Your light rising, your dawn breaking through over him.

He shall see your chosen ones prospering, he shall rejoice

In your joy as you regain the days of your youth.

How deeply, deeply privileged we are to be living his vision together, to see the light of our Land rising, its dawn breaking through. Yom HaAtzmaut Sameach!

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