D’var Torah by Anat Shiloach
April 4, 2008
This week’s parasha is primarily about skin. I’ve heard that in the ranking of torah portions that people enjoy talking about, this one is pretty close to the bottom of the list, because it describes undesirable skin conditions in somewhat graphic detail. I actually found it interesting, but that may be because I develop skin cleansing products for a living and I end up thinking about skin quite a bit anyway.
This parasha belongs to a section of Vayikra (Leviticus) that addresses impurity and purification. It describes four different types of tzara’at, a skin condition that has been translated as leprosy. This translation is somewhat problematic, because at the time, leprosy was a disease that couldn’t be cured, yet the tzara’at in this parasha can come and go. But leprosy (and the stigma associated with it) is also a fitting translation, because tzara’at is more than just a disease – it’s a serious condition that can lead to being declared impure and being isolated from the community.
It can be confusing to logically follow the detailed descriptions of tzara’at, partly because we don’t have clear modern medical analogies for the terminology. There are tangled descriptions of dark and light patches of skin, that are deeper or not than the surrounding skin, with dark or light hair, that spread or don’t spread.
But the general idea is pretty clear: You have some type of skin or hair discoloration. You visit the Cohen, or priest. He examines you, and then he decides whether or not you have leprosy. If you’re impure, you’re isolated for seven days, and then you go back to the Cohen for a second evaluation.
It almost sounds like the Cohen is a doctor, but he’s actually not. He’s in the business of determining ritual purity, not making medical diagnoses, and he’s the authority for declaring you pure or impure.
For example, verse 5 describes the Cohen examining a skin lesion to determine whether or not it has spread. It says “vehineh ha-nega amad be-einav”, which I would translate literally as “the affliction remained unchanged in his eyes.” In his commentary, the Ramban says this means the Cohen judged the change in size by sight rather than by measurement, but “be-einav”, or “in his eyes” can also mean “in his opinion.” So it’s up to the Cohen to decide your status.
Another one of the medieval commentators (Sforno) points out that only the Cohen has the authority to declare someone pure or impure, because he can then “instruct the patient to consider his deeds, to pray for himself, and the Cohen will pray for him as well.” Besides emphasizing the role of the Cohen as the judge of ritual purity, this interpretation also links the external appearance of the skin to actions. It implies that by praying you can become more pure – and this purity will be reflected in your skin.
This concept is distasteful to us today – we generally don’t accept the idea that if we do something wrong, we’ll be punished with leprosy. But the link between our internal state and the way we look still exists, though it’s perhaps more emotional, rather than moral or spiritual.
A few years ago I developed a body wash that was designed to give people a “healthy glow”. As part of our research, we ran focus groups to find out what glow really means. It’s obviously different from the glow of a light bulb, but it’s not easy to measure.
Consumers told us that you can’t really get a healthy glow by using a skin care product. Glow is something that comes from within: when you feel happy, relaxed and confident, your skin glows. And what if you’re not feeling relaxed and happy? There has also been some research linking stress to acne.
The idea that the Cohen will draw conclusions about our purity based on examining our skin also reminded me of how much we judge each other by the way our skin looks. Our skin is very visible, and we believe that it says something about who we are. That’s part of the reason there’s a big business in cosmetics that promise to transform your skin (and transform you).
I’m currently working on a skin lightening shower gel for Asia, where lighter skin is associated with a higher social status and better opportunities in life. I’ve heard Thai women say that they will buy these products even if they don’t really believe they’ll become lighter, because they don’t have anything to lose and they might as well try.
In the US and Europe, on the other hand, we find tanned skin attractive, maybe because it shows that we have time and money to go on vacation. It’s easy to find lotions and creams that promise to make us darker.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking care of our skin and caring about how we look. But I think this parasha can remind us that it’s not our job to judge each other based on appearance. The Cohen had the ability to link skin conditions to purity, but the rest of us haven’t had that training.
The original purpose of these purification laws was to bring the people of Israel closer to God. But it seems to me that today, another way to get closer to God is to not pay too much to attention to things that to our eyes are only skin-deep. Shabbat Shalom.