Anatomy of a Leper’s Conception
Some years ago a fellow came to see me to discuss his, as he put it, “miserable life.” “As far back as I can remember,” he told me, “I was shunned. People would ridicule and pick on me.”
“I don’t know what it is about me,” he continued, “but I seem to project a negative energy that elicits scorn and contempt.
“Then one week, looking for some solace in a Synagogue, I was following the Torah reading and there was description of my life: ‘This is the law of the leper… outside the camp’ (Leviticus 14:2-3), ‘he remains alone, outside the camp’ (13:46). Yes, I thought to myself, that’s me. Isolated, alone, a pariah, with no home, no family and no community.”
What do you say when someone shares such self-loathing feelings? I just cried.
But then, the man said something that gave me hope. “So as I was reading the Torah chapter, having finally discovered my tragic story, and I noticed that this week we actually read and combine two chapters, which together are called ‘Tazria-Metzora,’ literally translated in English as: Conceiving (Tazria) Leper (Metzora). How uncanny, I thought to myself. I was actually conceived and born a leper. I am inherently a repulsive person. My doomed destiny is set in stone…”
I was about to explain to him that these words (Tazria and Metzora) are just the two names of these respective chapters, and they are not be read as one statement. But then I realized two things: He was speaking from his wretched gut, and no matter how macabre, this was his personal read which resonated in his heart. My “Talmudic” explanations were irrelevant to this situation.
Secondly, I suddenly remembered that scholars actually do read Tazria-Metzora as one expression, and wonder at the bizarre convergence of these two paradoxical elements: The power and beauty of conception and the degradation and lowliness of the leper. Indeed, the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation, attributed to Abraham) states: “Nothing is higher than pleasure (oneg); nothing is lower than leprosy (negah).” Oneg and negah consist of the same three Hebrew letters: Ayin, Nun, Gimmel. When the Ayin comes first it creates oneg (pleasure); when the letters are reorganized and the Nun comes first it creates negah (the leprous curse).
And they go on to explain that the deepest pleasure is derived from transforming the abyss; through revealing the deepest sparks that lay embedded within the depths. Thus Tazria-Metzora: new revelations conceived in the womb of darkness.
But I never heard this fellow’s reverse interpretation: A leper from conception. A monster from birth.
No. I was not going to accept that option, no matter how insistent he was. Monsters are not born, they are made. “No evil comes from above,” our sages tell us. Ugliness is man-made.
In truth, no man has the power to turn another man into a monster. Free choice allows one to tragically turn himself into a monster; but no one can take away another’s dignity.
This is perhaps the most fundamental truth of all truths, and the basis of the entire Torah: Every individual was created in the Divine Image, each with a pure soul, and no matter what happens in one’s lifetime, the sacred innocence remains intact. Perhaps cloaked, obscured, even to the point of total concealment, but still burning in some way, waiting. Waiting like a pilot flame to be fanned and brought alive.
Even growing up in the most abusive home, where instead of nurturing a child was hurt and rejected, the damage done, the wounds incurred, are only on the conscious level; the inner soul always maintains its potency, and with effort and persistence, and a pinch of creativity, can be brought back to the surface.
Tazria-Metzora is the operative term: Out of the pariah’s isolation greatness can be conceived. True, the leper is a lonely sufferer, outside the camp and community. But the continuing story in the chapter is the process of healing from this torture.
With this principle in mind, I told my pitiful visitor that no matter his experiences, he was a beautiful person within. He snickered. Nothing I could say would convince him. But I did not relent. The more he resisted, the more I accelerated the attack against his distorted, self-destructive convictions. Not to be misunderstood, this “attack” was done with utmost sensitivity and care, but nevertheless it was a deliberate attempt to demonstrate that the power of light and hope is stronger that the erosive power of darkness and resignation.
Keep hammering away, subtly and consistently, and slowly, slowly you chip away at the armor, melting it away as the saplings begin to sprout.
“You may feel that you were born a leprous pariah,” I told him once, “but that very sense doesn’t allow you to be complacent; it compels you to see this as an opportunity to dig deeper.
“This may indeed be your Parsha, but not the way you see it: Instead of your having been conceived a leper, allow your pariah-like feelings conceive new dimensions of light, that have hitherto never been revealed.”
At times, we all experience existential loneliness. The feeling of “not belonging,” that we are alone, different and isolated, without a sense of camaraderie and community. We then have two choices: We either give in to these sentiments and allow ourselves to be further demoralized. Or we use the emptiness as an impetus to birth new possibilities.
Above all, perhaps the most freeing thing of all is the mere fact that the Torah dedicates a portion to discuss the plight of the lonely soul, not to mention his healing journey. A certain strength and powerful healing forces are unleashed when we commune with others that are suffering as we do.
What happened with the individual whose experience initiated this article? Years have passed since our initial encounter. Today, after much hard work and the acceptance that it may take a lifetime of work, this gentleman is married with several children. He has found some measure of peace and happiness amidst his anguished life. He now soothes many other tortured souls, gives hope to the hopeless, and teaches people by example how light – the deepest light – can be found in the most forsaken places.
Recently, he shared with me that his turning point came on that sad afternoon when, instead of being dismissed, he heard for the first time that Tazria-Metzora is not about a leper being born, but about a leper giving birth.
Photo by slworking2/Flickr.