The Skin of the Metzora and the Heart of the Messiah
Introduction: You Gotta Have Skin
When I was a camper at Camp Moshava, the staff had a penchant for waking us up to Alan Sherman records—the singer and comedy writer who wrote such parodies as “Al and Yetta” (sung to Alouette) and “Hello Muddah, Hello Fada” (set to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”). The song that stuck in my head most from those days of camp morning wake-ups was a particular number called “Skin”:
|Skin By Alan Sherman|
You gotta have skin
All you really need is skin
Skin’s the thing that if you got it outside
It helps keep your insides in
It covers your nose
And it wraps around your toes
And inside it you put lemon meringue
Outside you hang your clothes.
Skin is what you feel at home in
And without it furthermore
Both your liver and abdomen
Would keep falling on the floor
And you’d be dressed in your intestine
His song was a parody of another famous song, “Heart,” from the show, Damn Yankees. “Heart” asserted, in good American spirit, that all you needed to get ahead in life or in a baseball game was pluck, resilience, and determination–in other words, heart. Allan Sherman, who referred to “Skin” somewhat mischievously as a protest song, insisted to the contrary, that the shell mattered too, not just the core, that a person needed not just a heart, but also skin.
Parashat Tazria, as well as its companion Parasha, Metzora, are all about the importance of skin, specifically about what happens when the integrity or purity of skin is compromised by various kinds of eruptions or “scale diseases,” as scholar Jacob Milgrom prefers to translate the word צרעת.
Skin as Border
An Anthropological and Biological Look at Skin
In order to understand the significance of צרעת we need first, to consider, the biological, social, and anthropological function of skin.
Alan Sherman tells us very succinctly that “skin’s the thing that if we got it outside, it helps keep the insides in.” In other words: it serves as a borderline, a means of keeping bodies, entities, and categories apart. As theologian Rachel Adler explains,
Societies dread invasion, disintegration, and inundation, hence the extremities and borders of our nations, and our bodies are loci of concern, places where integrity might be breached and order over-thrown… Human skin is a long continuous boundary that demarcates the most basic of borders, the border between the human body and the world outside it. Breaches in the skin [such as those of צרעת] are attacks on the body’s wholeness. They leave the raw flesh vulnerable to the external world or display flesh taken over by externalities…
Rachel Adler, like most of us these days who want to understand Leviticus and the laws governing צרעת , has made herself a student of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007), the British anthropologist, author of Purity and Danger, Leviticus as Literature. According to Mary Douglas, Leviticus is concerned all over with boundaries, structures, and containers. The various details and strictures surrounding the preparations of sacrifices and what we may and may not eat reflect this concern.
Looking specifically at the laws pertaining to צרעת, Douglas observes that Leviticus,
“uses the simple idea of covering to build up a series of analogies for atonement from the skin covering the body, to the garment covering the skin, to the house covering the garment, and finally to the tabernacle: in each case, when something has happened to spoil the covering, atonement has to be done.”
Expressing Boundary Concerns in the Literary Structure
This concern for boundaries expresses itself not just in the details of the laws and the prohibitions, but also in the literary form of the book. In Tazria and Metzora, the Torah presents the laws of צרעת through a literary structure of containment or covering, involving a series of concentric rhetorical circles or repetitions.
Tazria begins its treatment of צרעת with the diagnosis of צרעת that afflicts the skin, then repeats this diagnostic focus with respect to the bodily extremities, the hair and the head; moves outward from there to clothing; and then still further outward, to the walls of one’s house. The next parasha, Metzora, provides the details for how to purify each one of these concentric circles of צרעת in the same order.
And then, as if to create a rhetorical or literary skin to reinforce the physical and ritual boundaries of purity, Leviticus 14 begins and ends almost identically: The words זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע, open the chapter; the words זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַצָּרָעַת mark the end.
This rhetorical structure—admittedly a typical P structure—mirrors the function of skin as a container or a border, one that helps keep insides in and outsides out.
The צרוע as a Mourner and Outsider
This point is driven home at the end of Chapter 13 of Vayikra, where the צרוע (person afflicted with scale disease) is painfully depicted as a mourner in torn clothes and loose hair, crying out tameh, tameh ([“I am] impure”) so as prevent others from touching him or her (v. 45.) The afflicted individual finally ends up dwelling בדד (alone), outside the camp (v. 46.) Here “the insiders,” whose bodies are whole and pure, are kept in, while the outsiders, those whose skin has been intruded, are kept out. Our association of the word בדד with the breached, defiled, destroyed state of Jerusalem in Megilat Eichah (1:1), only adds a sense of grief or desolation to this ritual depiction of the מצורע.
An Initial Summary
The anthropological perspective allows us a glimpse into the symbolic importance of the מצורע, and why much of the Bible is so very worried and fearful of a disease that may be little more than psoriasis. These laws, like other Priestly legislation, reflect anxiety over maintaining proper borders, and if the skin, the ultimate marker of human boundaries is afflicted, the world is turned inside out. Such people whose very bodies threaten the existence of borders must be relegated to outside of the camp.
But this is only part of the story. In fact, our tradition also reflects another conception of skin as a zone of contact rather than of strict separation or individuation. It is these other, more interactive or permeable aspects of skin that I would like to investigate now. For skin, I would argue, is not just a border, but a mediator; it is not just a means of protection, but also of communication.
Skin as a Means of Communication
As skin scientist Nina G. Jablonski explains:
Far from being an impervious barrier…the skin is a selectively permeable sheath. It is constantly at work as a watchful sentry, letting some things in and others out. The skin is also home to hundreds of millions of micro-organisms, which feed on its scales and secretions. But our skin is more than a defensive shield, a gatekeeper, and a personal zoo. The pores and nerve endings of our skin unite us with our surroundings. Skin is the interface through which we touch one another and sense much of our environment. Through our skin, we feel the smooth cold of melting ice, the warm and gentle breeze of a summer evening, the annoying pinch of an insect bite, the humbling pain of a scraped knee, the soft and calming feel of a mother’s hand, and the thrill of a mother’s touch.
Tazria/Metsora, as it turns out, reflect a similar awareness. If the laws of צרעת as examined thus far reinforce the role of skin as a barrier or boundary, the Hebrew word roots that are used throughout these chapters of Vayikra in relation to skin and its disorders underscore the role of skin not simply as a border but as a medium of communication and mediation.
נגע – “To Plague” and “To Touch”
The word nega, for example, which appears in Chapter 13 some 40 times, and which typically is translated as “plague,” derives from the Hebrew root נגע, “to touch.” Our skin, our first line of human defense and of vulnerability, is also our means of experiencing and reaching out to other people.
We get ne’gaim, because we are creatures of touch, because our boundaries necessarily abut those of others, because our very skin serves as an invitation and a host to others. The teeming repetition of the word nega in this chapter, itself serves as a kind of verbal representation of the ubiquity of touch and contact. We are touched all over, all the time, physically, emotionally, our skin serving as a kind of synecdoche for our very selves.
Skin, Awakening, and Proclamation: עור = להתעורר
Similar observations can be made about the Hebrew word עור, which means skin and which appears some 40 times in this chapter in its different senses of human skin or leather. עור recalls the verb לעורר to arouse, להתעורר, to wake oneself up, and להעיר, to comment, presumably in response to something said by someone else. Our skin, through its interface with others, is a site of continual awakening and interaction.
Even more striking is the relationship between the word בשר (flesh or skin), another word that proliferates throughout chapter 13 of Vayikra, and the Hebrew verb לבשר, which means to announce or proclaim, used in the Bible most often not in a neutral sense, but of proclaiming good or bad news. We proclamation or send tidings, בשורות, by mouth—one of several openings in the skin. To be a מבשר is not just to be one who proclaims, but one who brings the first news of something new, who stands at the very borderline between sadness and joy. For example, we read in Isaiah 52
How beautiful upon the mountains
רַגְלֵ֣י מְבַשֵּׂ֗ר מַשְׁמִ֧יעַ שָׁל֛וֹם
The feet of the messenger of good tidings announcing peace,
מְבַשֵּׂ֥ר ט֖וֹב מַשְׁמִ֣יעַ יְשׁוּעָ֑ה
The harbinger of good tidings announcing salvation;
אֹמֵ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן מָלַ֥ךְ אֱלֹהָֽיִךְ:
That say unto Zion: “Your God reigns.”
Here the same root בשר that is used over and over again in ויקרא יג to mark a pathological breach in one’s skin is used to suggest a happy turn of fate, a moment not of desolation but of redemption.
The Four מצורעים in the Haftarah: The Confluence of Suffering and Joy
This porous boundary between tragedy and joy, between the status of the מצרוע and the מבשר, is made especially clear in the Haftarah for Parshat Metzora, (II Kings 7:3-20), where four men with scale disease, מצורעים, sitting by the gates of the besieged city of Shomron, bring forth a בשורה טובה that saves the city.
It is precisely because of their role as outliers, forced to dwell outside the boundaries (or skin) of the city, that these four מצורעים are able to discover this good news, namely that the soldiers of Aram, those who had previously laid siege to and starved the city of Shomron, have actually deserted their camp, leaving all their provisions behind for the taking. Imagine that: It is those who had been banished and sealed off from the city who bring good news and sustenance not just to themselves, but to the very people who had cast them out.
The Reading of the Haftarah by a Modern Day “מצורעת”
In 1926, the poet Rachel (Rachel Bluwstein, 1891-1931), herself the victim of another kind of “nega,” (tuberculosis), one which set her apart from her kibbutznik peers and relegated her inside the walls of a cramped Tel Aviv apartment, composed the following poetic response to the story of the four metzora’im from II Kings 7:
בְּשֶׁכְּבָר הַיָּמִים הָאוֹיֵב הַנּוֹרָא
אֶת שֹׁמְרוֹן הֵבִיא בְּמָצוֹר;
אַרְבָּעָה מְצֹרָעִים לָהּ בִּשְּׂרוּ בְּשׂוֹרָה.
לָהּ בִּשְּׂרוּ בְּשׂוֹרַת הַדְּרוֹר.
Long ago when the terrible enemy
Besieged the city of Samaria,
Four lepers brought her good tidings
Brought her tidings of freedom.
כְּשֹׁמְרוֹן בְּמָצוֹר כָּל הָאָרֶץ כֻּלָּהּ,
וְכָבֵד הָרָעָב מִנְּשׂא.
אַךְ אֲנִי לֹא אֹבֶה בְּשׂוֹרַת גְּאֻלָּה,
אִם מִפִּי מְצֹרָע הִיא תָבוֹא.
Like Samaria, besieged, was the whole land,
And the famine, too heavy to bear.
But I shall not assent to tidings of redemption,
Should they come from the mouth of the leper.
הַטָּהוֹר יְבַשֵּׂר וְגָאַל הַטָּהוֹר,
וְאִם יָדוֹ לֹא תִמְצָא לִגְאֹל –
אָז נִבְחָר לִי לִנְפֹּל מִמְּצוּקַת הַמָּצוֹר
אוֹר לְיוֹם בְּשׂוֹרָה הַגָּדוֹל.
The pure shall proclaim and redeem the pure,
And if his hand cannot find a way to redeem–
Then it shall be my fate to fall victim to the siege,
Before the coming of the day of great tidings.
Usually, I turn to modern Hebrew poetry as a way out or as an alternative to a traditional reading of the Torah text. Here, though, Rachel, the would-be Zionist pioneer, plays the role of Levitical enforcer, upholding the strict rules of the purity regime. Looking at this poem, one cannot help wondering why Rachel says that she would rather succumb to the siege than accept good tidings from a מצורע.
Given her own experience of being set apart because of her illness, why would she not have welcomed the idea of a more porous boundary, one that actually allows the מצורע to serve as a מבשר? Is it because she understood and assented to the idea of strict quarantine? Or because she so hated being sick that she resented the very idea that her illness might be seen as giving rise to anything generative and positive?
Perhaps. The fact is, however, that Rachel’s illness gave rise to many good poems. Good news like good poetry often comes in a mixed bag. Tidings are rarely purely happy. They often hover on the borderlines, waiting for to be noticed, received, diagnosed or interpreted one way or another.
The Stricken Messiah
This is certainly the case in Isaiah 53, the chapter that immediately follows “Ma Navu” (analyzed above), and which furnishes the Christian image of the messiah as a “suffering servant”:
ד אָכֵ֤ן חֳלָיֵ֙נוּ֙ ה֣וּא נָשָׂ֔א
וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻ֔הוּ נָג֛וּעַ
מֻכֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּמְעֻנֶּֽה:
4 Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued
Smitten and afflicted by God
The Leper Messiah?
The famous Gemarah from Sanhedrin 98a is a literary descendant of the both of Isaiah 53 and story of the four מצורעים from II Kings 7. Here, R. Joshua b. Levi meets Elijah—the harbinger (or מבשר) of the Messiah—standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb.
He asks him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’
He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’
… He then asks him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ —
‘Go and ask him himself,’ is his reply.
‘Where is he sitting?’ asks R. Joshua—
‘By the gates of Rome.’
And by what sign may I recognize him?’ asks R. Joshua.—
Elijah answers: ‘He is sitting among the poor folk suffering from all kinds of skin ailments. All of them untie [their bandages] all at once, and re-bandage them together, whereas he [the Messiah] unties and re-bandages each one separately, [before treating the next], thinking, ‘should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’”
The Talmudic story ties together both parts of this devar Torah. On one hand, the story teaches that “you gotta have skin” and sometimes you need bandages too. We all need that barrier and protection. Even the messiah can suffer. But we need boundaries that can occasionally open up to new possibilities. We need openness and a healthy sense of vulnerability. This openness is what makes the Messiah possible to find in a crowd of fellow מצורעים.
At least one strand of our tradition, from Kings, to Isaiah, to Sanhedrin, has insisted that redemption (if not purity) will come from the unlikeliest of places and people, those who suffer the worst kinds of breaches to the wholeness of their skin. According to this tradition, the only difference between the garden variety naguah and the mashiach, is the readiness, at any time, to receive the besorah tovah (the good news). You gotta have skin, yes, but you also really need a mouth, a soul, and a heart.
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April 19, 2015
March 30, 2020
Professor Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and her M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her B.A. from Stern College (YU). She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.
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