Medical science teaches us that skin is the largest organ of the human body. And it is about skin that the Torah devotes nearly two entire portions (parshiyot) that we will read this Shabbat, entitled: Tazria and Metzora. This is how the Torah introduces the laws concerning a skin disorder that would render the person ritually unclean:
“If a person (Adam) has on the skin of his body: s’eit– a (white) blotch, sapachat—a creamy blotch, or baheret—a (bright) spot, and it forms a (suspected) lesion of tzara’at on the skin of his body, he should be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests (for examination).”
The Torah then proceeds to state that if the priest declares the person to be ritually unclean they must be segregated from the community until they recover. Upon recovery, the Torah prescribes a ritual of sacrifices that effect the complete purification of the afflicted person and his or her return to the community.
The word employed here by the Torah for person is Adam. Generally, the Torah uses the less formal term ish, to denote a man, or isha for a woman. When the Torah employs the more sophisticated term of Adam it indicates that we are dealing with a spiritually sophisticated individual. This suggests that the affliction of tzara’as is one that affects primarily people who are on a spiritually heightened plane.
To prove this point one could refer to how even Moses and his sister Miriam, the two greatest leaders of the Jewish people of all times, were afflicted with tzara’at. Furthermore, the Talmud applies the appellation of Metzora—the person afflicted with this skin disorder—to none other than Moshiach himself! Obviously, the state of tzara’at can afflict even, (nay, especially) the most spiritual of people.
The question that should be raised here is how can we explain the phenomenon of tzara’at applying to people of such high caliber?
One answer provided by the Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson in his classic work Degel Machaneh Efraim, cites the three forms of tzara’at enumerated in the beginning of this week’s parsha mentioned earlier: s’eit– a (white) blotch, sapachat—a creamy blotch, or baheret—a (bright) spot.” These three skin disorders describe the three circumstances that cause a temporary lull in an otherwise spiritual person’s life of holiness and constant growth.
The first condition that afflicts advanced people is the attainment of such heights that they feel that they cannot grow anymore—they reached a plateau. Frequently spiritually charged people will discover that they have lost their ardor and enthusiasm. And even not-so-holy individuals discover that their moments of inspiration are usually followed by moments of lethargy, disinterest and even indifference. Why can’t a person remain on a high note?
The reason for this word is hinted in the name of the first disorder, s’eit which is related to a Hebrew word that means to rise. The spiritual impasse that one can experience was designed by the A-mighty Himself to enable a person who lost his spiritual momentum to start climbing again.
By standing still and feeling the inability to grow any further and even by losing some of the gains they have made previously, they are pushed and propelled to start the climb to greater heights once more. When people who experiences this loss of holiness and cry out to G-d—in the words of the Psalmist—”My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?” G-d will ultimately respond to their pleas by enabling them to climb even higher and higher.
There is a second factor in an otherwise spiritually advanced individual’s stagnation that is caused by one’s environment. One can be held back by the lack of support, or through the outright disruptive efforts of others. This is alluded to in the second form of tzara’as known as sapachat, which can be translated as “associations.” There are countless stories of otherwise conscientious individuals whose enthusiasm was dampened by others.
Now while the first factor that contributes to spiritual stagnation is internal and psychological, and the second factor is external, coming from one’s peers, there is a third factor that is caused by one’s students.
This third impediment to continued spiritual growth is experienced when the intended recipients of one’s knowledge “tune out” because the master’s teachings are abstruse and beyond the capacity of the students to grasp and relate to. This superior level of knowledge is alluded to in the name of the third form of tzara’at, baheret, which means radiant or (a blinding) luminescence. Not having anyone on whom to shine one’s light and shower one’s fountains of knowledge, can cause these very fountains of knowledge to dry up.
To deal with any of these three causes of spiritual stagnation one must go to Aaron, the man who personified the trait of kindness. One must have a spiritual mentor, who is imbued with the spirit of love and compassion, who will help the person uncover the root causes of his or her spiritual stagnation and provide the mechanism to break out of it.
As noted, our Sages refer to Moshiach as a Metzora. This could mean that part of the process of Moshiach involves recognizing and treating the spiritual malaise that affects even and particularly the more elite spiritual people. Indeed, Moshiach will guide and show us how to deal with the spiritual maladies that are represented by the three forms of skin disorders. Moshiach, in effect, is the ultimate dermatologist that will cure all of the spiritual skin diseases that serve as barriers to the person experiencing his full potential.