Tazria & the Positive Power of Shame

I asked for feedback and I got it. I’m going on for far too long and I’m trying to in squeeze too many ideas. I’ll try to get better. In fact, this week’s dvar Torah is almost 8.5% shorter. It’s a start. Unfortunately, I couldn’t cut back on the idea side of things. You see, this week’s Torah reading is so pertinent, and so much fun, that I just couldn’t help myself.

Okay, if you want to find something to be offended by in the Torah there are lots and lots of options. But if you want to be really up-to-date in your offense, the pickings are much slimmer. For example, you could look at the command to kill all the men and steal the women and children when attacking enemy cities. It isn’t exactly P.C. But, although the Russians seem to be doing a decent job of keeping the practice alive, that ideological war is really a last millennium kind of thing. Meanwhile, blowing women up for infidelity ain’t exactly egalitarian, but I think we covered that one in the last century. Even the Torah prohibitions of various sexual practices are really a last-decade kind of argument.

No, if you want something to be offended about in the here and now, there aren’t as many options.

But this week has one, and it’s a doozy.

The very contemporary Brene Brown, whose opinions on social interactions are redefining modern America, has a definition of ‘shame.’ Shame is: an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Aside from defining shame, she argues it is a very very very very bad thing that leads to all sorts of bad reactions: addiction, violence, bullying etc… She believes that for people to be truly happy, not only must they not feel shame, they must express their true selves, and have others recognize, and laud, them for who they really are.

So, Shame be gone! According to Brene Brown, it has no place in our modern world.

This week’s Torah portion ought to get the modern day Brownian nicely worked up. Just consider one small part. When somebody is diagnosed with Tzarat (called ‘leprosy’ in many modern translations) we seem to have them tearing their clothes, uncovering their heads, covering their upper lips, kicked out of their settlements and forced to walk around calling out “I am impure, I am impure…”

This, this, is institutionalized shame. Just compare with her definition. You tear your clothes, just as you do when mourning. There’s your intensely painful bit. You’re calling yourself impure all the time. There’s your unworthy bit. And you’ve been kicked out of town. There’s your sense of belonging.

If the science is right, this technique must have produced ample ancient Israelites who wanted nothing more than to feed kittens to woodchippers. Or, lacking woodchippers, slaughter entire cities.

I mean, wow!

So why does the Torah – and by extension Hashem – do this?

Why encourage the feeling of being an outcast?

I used to explore the nature of Tzarat through the circumstantial evidence. But then, while trying to reinforce the connection, or contrast, to Brownianism, I discovered something pretty cool.

The verse where the whole ‘calling out’ is referred to reads:

וְהַצָּרוּעַ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ הַנֶּגַע, בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ, וְעַל-שָׂפָם, יַעְטֶה; וְטָמֵא טָמֵא, יִקְרָא.

We generally translate it something like: “And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’”

We start with the situation: “dude’s got the plague” and then we move into the ramifications “tear clothes, loosen hair, cover lip, cry out.” The poetic “his… shall, his… shall, he… shall, his shall” beat reinforces this. King James did a great job here.

But the actual phrasing has a weird sort of break. It is more like “1: [dude’s got the plague] 2: [his clothes will be torn, his hair will be loosened] 3: [cover his lip, have him cry out].”

There are three distinct phrases in this verse. And the middle phrase, “his clothes will be town, his hair will be loosened” doesn’t quite belong with either the beginning or the end.

Why is it written this in this way? Well, let’s look at the words. As we discussed a few weeks ago, beged (the word for clothes) isn’t just clothes. Simlah covers that. Begedim are clothes that designate you as something. The word used for ‘tearing’ comes up in two contexts: tearing clothes and voiding vows. This can explain why we tear our clothes in mourning. We’re abandon our normally designated roles, and we use our clothes to redesignate ourselves as mourners. The tearing is just a means to this end.

So, that first part of that middle phrase could be “his designating clothes will be voided.”

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t help much.

So, let’s go to the second phrase. The ‘rosh’ part is clear. It’s his head. Except, well, that word has lots of meanings: ‘head’, ‘beginning’, ‘first’ and ‘primary’ are just a few of them. Whatever it is, it is central to the person involved. What about the word paruah, which is translated as ‘uncover’? That word is extremely common. After the sin of the calf, Moshe sees the people were paruah. He accuses Aaron of making them paruah. Okay, doesn’t help much. But another use helps a lot. The root of that word is used to describe one man, again and again: Pharaoh.

Same word.

Pharaoh thought he was equal to Hashem. He was the most hubristic of men – built up by Hashem and Joseph to own all of Egypt (including the people) and then forgetting where it had all come from. He was the ultimate Ubermensch. I’m Nietzsche would have loved him.

The middle phrase thus has this weird double tap: “His designating clothes will be voided and his core will be hubristic.” We can read it as an action we take: we tear their designating clothing, showing they’ve decided they have no place. And we loosen their hair (consistently a sign of individuality) showing they are extra individual.

But we can also read it as a natural result of having Tzarat. They simply don’t know their place. In other words, the first two phrases can read: “Dude has Tzarat, he won’t know his place.”

This verse is telling us what the cause of Tzarat is. Lashon Harah is just a symptom of this person’s attitude. The attitude that no role, defined by clothes, can contain them. And their heads, their primacy, is equal to G-d’s.

So, what about the ‘punishment’? Let’s start with the lips. The word Safah, for ‘lip’, can also mean a ‘riverbank’, a ‘border’ or a ‘hem’. It is an ‘edge’ like the lips are the edges of the mouth. I read the story of the Tower of Bavel in this way. People didn’t have one language (after all, languages were already split apart a few verses earlier using the word lashon), instead there were no social divisions between them. No borders. When Hashem took down the Torah, he created social divisions and broke them apart because total achdut (unity) was not a good thing.

Let’s use divisions, social divisions, as a meaning of safam (which is a plural of safah). This phrase tells us to ‘cover his social divisions.’ It might seem like a weird phrase, but so is covering the upper lip. What do you do, grow a mustache? No, I think what you are doing is reminding this person they are a part of society. You’re covering what separates them.

Then they cry out, to themselves, “I am impure, I am impure” and are stuck outside the camp.

Let’s put this verse (and the next one) together, in colloquial language:

“Dude has Tzarat, he doesn’t know his place, remind him that he belongs, have him cry out about his lost potential and stick him outside the camp so he can have some alone time to process reality.”

It might look like I’m nuts, but I think that’s what Tzarat is really about. Teaching people that their greatest potential is actually realized as part of something greater than themselves.

Here’s the circumstantial evidence I normally rely.

First, when Tzarat strikes homes, the Torah calls out a particular building material: stone. Stone implies permanence. A man, or woman, with a stone house might imagine themselves more permanent than they actually are. They might forget their own mortality.

Second, to be cleansed you must seek out a Kohen, or Priest. You can’t diagnose yourself. You are forced to rely on a higher authority.

Third, as part of the purification process, the sufferer’s hair is shaved and their ears, thumbs and big toes are dipped in blood and oil. This is just like the consecration of a Kohen and for good reason. The Kohen is being put into their proper place when they are brought into the service. They are to serve as the connection between man and G-d. It isn’t about them, it is about their role as a bridge between the human and the divine. They have to be careful not to get too full of themselves. Shaving the hair reduces individuality. The ears, thumbs and big toes represent our influences, our actions and our will. Blood reminds us of our limits in each of these areas while oil symbolically purifies these aspects of our beings. The purified Tzarat sufferer is getting limited as part of the process of making him a part of something unlimited.

Finally, birds are brought at the end of the process. Birds are the offerings of the poor and the humble. One bird is killed and the other is dipped in its blood – and then let loose to fly free. The Tzarat sufferer should see themselves in the bird. Humble and mortal; and even though they live today, and can fly free, they are reminded of their limits.

If we take the whole process from the top. They have a skin fungus (I think it’s a mold as it can spread to clothes and buildings, plus there are lots of records, including in the Talmud, of Tzarat existing outside of Israel and after we were exiled). Anyway, they have a skin fungus, they get diagnosed by the Kohen, being forced to recognize and rely on a higher authority. If they have Tzarat, they will be full of themselves. They are reminded that they belong. Then they must remind themselves of much potential they lose by forgetting that they are a part of something greater. They are pulled into conformity and service of Hashem. And finally, they are reminded that they are mortal and thus limited.

In fact, I want to extend it a little bit. Not only do they take two birds, they also take cedarwood, scarlet and Azov. Cederwood is the tree with the deepest roots and longest life in the Middle East. It actually has the second longest life of any tree. It represents deep roots and connection to something beyond yourself. The scarlet (Tola’at Shani) represents trust in Hashem because the Tola’at is what eats the Ma’an so we learn to rely on Hashem day by day. And the Ayzov is something that slowly changes and transforms. We are teaching the cleansed Tzarat sufferer that they have deep roots, the ability to change and that they can rely on Hashem.

There goes my 8% shorter.

So… why don’t they do horrible things to kittens?

The reason is because the point of the shame isn’t to diminish them. It is to empower them.

You see, the risk of a world without shame isn’t that people will express their true selves and find real fulfillment when they do. The risk is that they will express their true selves and find no fulfillment when they do. There is very little to us, especially at our cores, that represents a set reality. And when we go looking for our individual unique truth, our own fundamental reality, we often discover there is much less there than we imagined. Very few of us are defined by a letter in an acronym, which is why we have to keep adding more – especially the ambiguous ones. No, our true fulfillment is found in being part of something that reaches beyond ourselves and beyond our time. Not just to community (which is really as far as atheistic scientists tend to see), but to the timeless and to the divine.

The shame exists to remind us of that. It is there so we can grow through the experience of it.

Because of that, the kittens will be safe.

This sense of greater purpose and greater connection is critical to society. Without it, we self-destruct. In S’dom, the people cried out for destruction. They hated themselves. No one was willing to lay with the daughters of Lot, because nobody wanted to have children.

They were abandoning any connection to the future.

S’dom is not just a legend in the Torah. It is increasingly a vision of our reality today. Fertility is not only collapsing throughout the West and Asia, the collapse is accelerating. According to a Pew survey from late 2021: “Today, some 44% of adults ages 18-49 who don’t have children said they were ‘not too likely’ or ‘not at all likely’ to have kids down the road, up seven percentage points from 37% in 2018. More than half of adults (56%) who don’t have children and replied they don’t plan on having one said ‘they just don’t have to have kids.’”

For these people, children are only an obligation – and one they no longer have. They are not about reaching something beyond themselves.

Theirs may seem like a gentle path of social self-annihilation, but it is anything but. We are experiencing the largest free-rider problem in the history of the world. With birth control, people enjoyed the full range of physical pleasures without having children. With public pensions and social security, they have relied on other people’s children to provide the goods they would need in their old age.

The result will be a lack of goods for the elderly, everywhere.

It doesn’t matter if the cash balance sheet looks good. If you don’t have anything to buy, cash is just paper. The result (unless AIs miraculously take over) will be rampant and desperate poverty among the swelling ranks of the elderly and the young paying for their support.

There won’t be enough working age productivity to support everyone.

We’ll see a horrifying process of self-annihilation.

Everybody can see this coming, but nobody is changing course. We can’t see that humankind has a purpose as a part of something greater than ourselves.

In this context, especially in the Brownian Era, a little Tzarat might actually be a good thing.

Now, before I suck all hope out of the future, there is one spot of positivity. You see, there’s a really weird bit in the diagnosis of Tzarat. If you are covered, head to toe, in white – then you are pure. Then, as soon as a patch of healthy skin reappears, you are Tamei – or impure.

This seems weird until you consider that Tzarat – before it spreads to the head, beard or clothes – is consistently associated with the color white and the color white is consistently associated with purity.

Perhaps, Tzarat is actually a spot of purity. A spot of contrast against the impure individual. This might be why Tzarat itself is never called impure. Instead, the person is. To flip modern lingo on its head: rather than being a person with impurity, the sufferer of Tzarat is an impure person – and the Tzarat is making it clear.

So where is Tzarat today? I believe the State of Israel is a spot of Tzarat. Sure, Israel has its fair share of moral quandaries and issues. But Israel does stand out in one remarkable way. We are the only nation that has embraced bothscientific progress and fertility. Even the so-called secular, thoroughly a part of the modern world, reproduce at or above the replacement rate. They are connected to the future.

The  understanding that you must reach beyond the individual and even the community in order to realize your potential is a big part of why we moved here.

It is the empowering and enriching reality in which we wanted to raise our children.

It’s just a pity, isn’t it, that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be taking notice.

Thank you for reading, and Shabbat Shalom.

Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

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