Shabbat Tazria 5779, 6th April 2019
Some of you may have seen the striking Mothercare advertisements which have appeared on billboards recently.
They feature a realistic portrait of a woman who has just given birth, whose abdomen bears stretch marks. It is a welcome departure from the idealised image we have of celebrities whose bodies seem to return to normal a few days after giving birth.
The image brings together the two themes of this week’s sidra. The first is childbirth. The sidra begins by describing how a woman must have a period of seclusion after giving birth and then bring offerings for purification. It reflects the deep taboos around childbirth, especially from a male point of view which, understandably given the high maternal mortality rate in biblical times and the taboos around blood, sees it as something frightening and alien.
Then the sidra goes on to describe in great detail a skin disease known as tzara-at or metzora, often mistranslated as leprosy. This also needs seclusion and purification. The High Priest would inspect it and determine whether the person suffering from it should be excluded from the camp. Then he would determine when the person could re-enter and what rituals he or she should perform before doing so. The person with skin disease, like the woman giving birth, was viewed as someone to be wary of, who needed to be separated from the main community lest they bring danger.
Despite this, there is no hint in our sidra that the person with a skin disease has done wrong, any more than the woman giving birth has done wrong. Indeed, it seems to recognise the humanity and vulnerability of both. This changes in the rabbinic period. Tzara-at came to be associated with lashon ha-ra, gossip or talking ill of someone. It came to be seen as a warning to repent. If the lesson was learnt early on, the consequences were limited, but if not the disease spread, eventually to the person’s garments and even their home.
From the rabbinic point of view, a person with a skin disease had brought it on themselves. An outer disfigurement meant an inner fault. We can see the same thinking in a midrash about Vashti, who burst out in pustules because of her rebellious nature. Nowadays, we recognise how unfair this way of thinking is. Yet we continue to judge people by appearances. The actor James Corden was reported last week as complaining that overweight actors never got parts as romantic leads. It doesn’t take much reflection to realise he is right. Yet what does a person’s appearance have to do with their capacity to love and to be loved?
Skin disease, being so visible, means that a sufferer is particularly vulnerable. From teenagers with severe acne to adults with psoriasis or facial disfigurement, we know that they can feel severe embarrassment, sometimes shutting themselves away or feeling anxiety in company. To add to this by associating their appearance with their behaviour is both hurtful and wrong.
The rabbinic view is contradictory for it also tells that it is a terrible wrong to shame people. Indeed, shaming a person is compared to murder. It is called halbanat panim, causing the face to blanche, because, like murder, it causes blood to drain from a face. How then, can the rabbis imagine that God would shame a person by disfiguring their appearance in order to make known publicly that they have committed some sin? Perhaps they saw in it an element of ‘measure for measure’, the punishment fitting the crime, for talking ill of someone is also compared by the rabbis to murder in its seriousness, for it too can lead to shame and embarrassment and can kill a person’s good name. The person who is talked about may have no redress because they do not even know what is said about them.
Yet, nowadays we have a different understanding of disease. In many ways, it is closer to the idea in our Sidra. If a person suffers from a skin disease they need understanding and sympathy. They need someone to take them seriously. Sometimes they may even need a period of seclusion, not as a punishment but as time to gather their mental strength to face the world without shame or embarrassment.
All around us, we are presented with images of ideal beauty, as if they are the images we should strive for. Mothercare is to be congratulated in reminding us that ideal looks, which are so often presented in our media, do not reflect the reality and diversity of human beings. Let us never judge others by their appearance and always treat those who appear different with sympathy and understanding and as normal human beings, no different from ourselves. For, as a blessing created by the rabbis teaches us, Baruch atah adonai, m’shaneh habriot, blessed are You, Eternal God, who creates all human beings in all their diversity, and so enriches creation.