EXTREME MAKEOVER Parsha Tzaria Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum Special to the Baltimore Jewish Times April 8, 2005
These days, there are plenty of ways for people to improve their appearance. If we don’t like something about the way we look, we can camouflage it, or even correct it with Botox, facial peels, or cosmetic surgery. And of course, everyone is fascinated by the makeover—the dramatic transformation shown in those "before" and "after" pictures.
The Jewish way of life encourages health and beauty: we are obligated to take care of our bodies, to make ourselves presentable, to dress elegantly for Shabbat and holidays. But though "beauty is only skin deep," one’s skin is a reflection of what lies beneath it; on a physical level, what goes on inside the body is often manifested through the skin.
For a bit of spiritual perspective, let’s take a step back into Biblical times. In this week’s Torah portion, Tazri’a, we read that a person with the skin condition tzara’at, loosely translated as "leprosy," was considered "impure" and would be sent to live outside of the main camp until the kohen, priest,declared him "pure" again.
The tzara’at, the Rabbis explain,was a symptom of something deeper, God’s way of alerting someone that inner work needed to be done. While in isolation, theperson was to examine his behavior. In particular, he was to examine his speech and work to eliminate the trait of speaking lashon ha-ra, derogatory or damaging speech about another person—even if it is true! Our Sages identify tzara’at with lashon ha-ra because the prophetess Miriam was stricken with leprosy for speaking ill of her brother Moses. Once the afflicted individual’s speech was corrected, the tzara’at would disappear, and the kohen would declare him ready to immerse in the purifying waters of the mikveh, the ritual bath. He could then rejoin the community.
To the modern reader, this may be hard to understand or relate to. And yet we know that the weekly parashah is always relevant. So how are we meant to apply these narratives to our own lives?
Our skin is the permeable barrier between our inside and our outside. It represents our boundaries, our choices about what to let in and what to let out. The faculty of speech is the channel through which we bring our inner thoughts to the outside world. Words are like arrows: once they are released, they cannot be recalled, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words, like arrows, often go astray. Consciously choosing to use positive speech has a beneficial effect on us and enhances our interpersonal relationships. The Vilna Ga’on, the great eighteenth-century Biblical commentator and kabbalist, said that proper speech is the single most important factor in determining our portion in the World to Come. The Chafetz Chayyim, Rabbi Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen, one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the last century, taught that adherence to the laws of proper speech empowers our prayer, validates our Torah learning, and invokes God’s blessings and divine protection.
The parashah teaches us that the cure for the malady of lashon ha-ra is to spend time improving ourselves on the inside, diligently working to correct our thoughts, speech, and actions. By exercising self-discipline and self-control, we can achieve a spiritual transformation—an inner makeover that reflects outward, through our skin and our entire being.
As Passover approaches, it is fitting that we consider how we might improve ourselves. Preparing for the Festival of Freedom involves cleaning out every crumb of chametz--leaven—in our homes, cars, and offices. Chametz symbolizes the quality of being "puffed up," or overly concerned with oneself. When we sincerely work to eradicate our faults, we become liberated from our bad habits and self-imposed limitations. We can then look outside of ourselves, connecting more deeply with our families, friends, and communities. On Pesach we are scrupulous about what we put into our mouths; each and every day of the year we must be vigilant about what comes out of our mouths!
Nisan is a month of miracles. Our spotless houses get a makeover, and hopefully, so do we, from the inside out. Through our self-improvement efforts, may we merit miraculous transformations in our own lives and the lives of all those around us, and may the world shine with beauty, truth, and lasting peace. Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Weisblum is spiritual leader of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Annapolis and the author of the popular Table Talk: Biblical Questions and Answersand the newly releasedRuth Talk: Questions and Answers on the Book of Ruth.