What lies beneath
Parshat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33
We often hear it said in conversation that “beauty is only skin deep” and that we should look beyond physical appearance to judge the true character of a human being. But our ancients believed the corollary also was true: that some forms of surface ugliness, such as a scabby, infectious skin disease, pointed to a moral ugliness and perhaps a predilection for sinfulness, embedded deep within. If the affliction seems to go deeper than the skin, they believed, so does the defect in character.
Such a defilement was to be handled as a plague that could spread through the community, to other people, to clothing and even to homes. It was a plague that could only be stopped with a combination of containment and oversight by a priest, who would judge the person to be tamei (impure) or tahor (pure), words used to describe a ritual state of being.
According to our mussar ethical tradition, “our Sages say that nega’im comes because of wicked thoughts. The priest must check to see if the nega is deeper than the skin, whether it is deeper than meets the eye and whether its source is in the heart, in the person’s wicked thoughts.”
These days, we know more about skin disease, infection and the risk of contagion, and we treat from a medical perspective, not an ethical one. Yet, if we look deeper than the surface meaning of the parshah, we can see that Torah is trying to teach us a meaningful ethical lesson.
Perhaps the nega can be thought of in allegorical terms, not as a manifestation of evil but of despair — as a mark of spiritual or moral crisis so profound that it is visible to others. Let’s face it: it is hard for us to hide our emotions when our lives are in chaos. We are accustomed to “putting on our best face,” so to speak — in which case beauty really is only skin deep. But the telltale lines, bags and sallow skin color show what truly lies beneath.
Perhaps it is this illness of the soul that a priest is trained to sense from its physical manifestations and why a priest is put in charge of treatment. Indeed, Rabbi Asher of Stolin criticized, among the Hasidim of 18th-century Lithuania, a similar tendency to approach their rebbe — his father — by showing what was good about themselves and hiding what was bad. “When I would come to my father and teacher,” he said, “I would hide the good and show the bad in me, as one must show the priest the nega’im.”
From our 21st-century perspective, we might say that Rabbi Asher understood the only way to resolve a spiritual or moral crisis was to acknowledge it and then seek the guidance of a sage or teacher or someone else in a therapeutic relationship. In a way, that’s what the priest is doing here, guiding the person with the plague, through one week and then another of seclusion and reflection, until his or her soul is at ease and he or she is comfortable returning to home, family and community.
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.