Skin-Deep Storytelling

In this week’s double Parsha,Tazria/Metzora, the Torah teaches about a spiritual malady that manifested itself physically in the form of scaly patches on the skin. This disease,tzara’at, is often mistranslated as leprosy, but they are two separate conditions with two different sets of symptoms.

If someone noticed signs of tzara’at on her body, a Kohen inspected her skin. The Kohen, considered an expert in the spiritual and medical aspects of tzara’at, would decide whether the person had the disease or if she needed to be monitored to see whether the affected areas would worsen or heal.
“What will the Kohen say? If I have tzara’at, I will be sent outside the Israelite camp … isolated from the community. I cannot endure it.”
This is what I imagine happening in the parsha. The rabbis believed that the cause of tzara’at was lashon ha’rah, speaking negatively about another person. Those afflicted with tzara’at were expected to do teshuva, meditating upon their sins and then resolving to change. Only then could they heal, the Kohen could purify them, and they could re-enter the camp.

The belief that a physical disease could arise from lashon ha’rah may seem antiquated today, but if we step inside the story, imagining that we are the distressed person, we can discover a piece of ourselves:
“God, I cannot hide from You. My thoughtless speech caused others to criticize my neighbors, and to withdraw from my relatives. Now I am separated from my family and my neighbors, and from my people. God, You warned me with this plague that penetrated my home, and again, when it infected my clothing. But I did not change. I have wounded with my words, and now this wound lives inside of me. If I am worthy, allow me to live with my community again. Allow me to heal that I may speak well of the people I have harmed.”
When we speak from inside the stories of our ancestors, we feel the Torah within our own bodies. We see these stories as our own. By sharing Judaism through story, we are identifying with each other. We are creating community.

Each member of our community is a bearer and a teller of our Jewish story. When we tell our story, even when it’s awkward to do so, and when we listen to another’s story, even when it’s disturbing to hear, our kehillah grows stronger.

We will have the opportunity to share our own stories on April 21 at Limmud Baltimore. In one session, Telling Torah: Stepping Inside Our Story, we will explore our role as Jewish storytellers of our generation. Throughout this day of teaching and learning, we will share ourselves with people from across Jewish Baltimore. When we share ourselves, others share themselves. And we speak well of each other.

“Thank you God for healing me. Thank you, my community, for welcoming me again. Because you have listened to my story, you have lessened my pain. I am ready to listen to your stories. Your goodness will be upon my lips.”

 

Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff is a professional Jewish storyteller, educator and coach. She will be teaching — and learning — at Limmud Baltimore on April 21 at Johns Hopkins University. For more, visitlimmudbaltimore.org.