The Pariah


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.



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15 years ago
15 years ago

Rav Shimon, that was a beautiful story and a novel way of reading these parshiyot. It is always hard to get into these sedrahs of the second half of shemot and vayikra – thankyou for the insights!

15 years ago

You summed it up so well in the last sentence. May more lives be lit up and transformed for the good!

Patricia Grossman
15 years ago

As an artist, the blacksheep of the family and in our culture, I have felt this way too, of the Leper. Your article is very inspiring. I hope I can get to the point in my healing to be able to help other tortured souls too.

Christopher Darrin Horn
15 years ago

Thanks for this. It made my day.

15 years ago

How lovely and the truth.
Praised be G-d that we..imaged in His likeness..that spark of which you rightly speak..provides the remembrance and the power of the light that is eternal…May this mercy within always resonate to each always as we all continue our journey back to the great and loving G-d who has so generously mades us and calls us forth to shine more brightly every day..a glory to His Glory…ever and Amen.
May you be blessed for this message of light and truth. Pray please for me as I for you and all…in our journey.
Thank you.

edward Kahn
15 years ago

Reb Shimon,

Und a schoenem gruss to you and your brother Y.Y. from Eddie Kahn, Gershon Schustermans cousin and Mordche Baumans son-in law.

Recently, my sister Shirley died after a 4 month bout with Stage IV Lung Cancer. Just 56 a few weeks ago, leaving a 15 year old boy and a 90 year old mother who lost two sisters and a brother and mother in father to the Shoah after emigrating to America in 39 with her older sister….

Once again, and this time in my moment of greatest need, you have pierced the darkness that conceals the majesty of Torah and its consolation from the Master of the Universe in a way, as you so often do, for a non-frumm Yid.

My sister died, but before her illness, and even during her illness and even while dying, captured for HERSELF her full inner neshomo beauty. Now I know why she was so unafraid of her disease. She had connected to who she was intended to be and that is and was a beautiful thing to behold. A few tubes and some green peritoneal fluid could not obscure the correct order of the Oneg. A schoenem dank.

Eddie Kahn

Evelyn Cohen
15 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson: After moving quite a few times and finally moving back to Guatemala with my family, where I was born, I understand first hand how easy it is to feel like a misfit, until you run into the right person, ask the right question, and embrace life with full force instead of hesitantly! My daughter is 12 and feels like she doesnt belong in a goy world surrounded by non-jews and treif food! She is insistant that she is in the wrong place and she feels like a crazy person (full of all these rules, kashrut, synagogue, Shabat and Yom Tov). She tells me she can go back to Seattle, where she lived until she turned 7 and be normal with her friends! I explained High School is more the option and she should find a way to fit in. Life is a fruit salad and sometimes we like one fruit more than the other, and yet we like fruit salad! We are in Guatemala due to work reasons, and eventhough my husband is from Seattle and also wants to go back, our job is here!
In life everyone begins so different, and everyone comes to the pint where they dont feel like they belong. If they run into the right shoulder to cry on, they will be fortunate enough to deal with a heavy hand dealt with controversial feelings. If not, withdrawing from society is an expensive price to pay.
Thank you for your newletter. It does nourish the soul!

15 years ago

Shalom Rabbi Jacobson,

This article was of inspiration to me because my mother never blessed me but now I am blessing to others. I am a receipient of the Light and I give IT to others lovingly! Thank you for this encouraging piece!


11 years ago

Dear Rabbi,
Just today I told my grief counselor that I felt like a pariah. How odd. Thank you for likewise shedding some light on my own personal darkness. You have been blessed with a great gift. Thanks for imparting a little piece of it to me.

11 years ago

This article resonated with me; the opportunity to give from a dark place and the reality that it may, for some, be a lifelong struggle to move out of the darkness. I grew up in a home where my father told me too often that I was nothing, worthless, a bum, would never be anything. In a moment of complete calm, while eating lunch, (i.e. not said in anger) he told me he wished hed never had any of us (his kids) and that he never loved any of us. His random-nightmarish moods where he beat me up, my sisters, my poor mom, the physical violence is possible to grow out of but the words, as a child, they seep in. In retrospect I know, logically, my father is a sick man. But, and this is one of the most difficult things about being raised by someone like my dad, no one says Im sorry, no one explains that its not true, youre not nothing, no one says its not the case. In that space between youre nothing and silence, what does a child hear? In that space and over time, these words grow arms and legs and you find yourself from a young age and into adulthood, waking to an ongoing sense of having no value and a deep sense of isolation. In addition to our own struggles in the dark, trying to bring light from these painful places, we need to be willing, when we witness people being mean to others, when we know of injustices, to stand up, say something, do something, let others know you see it, you hear it, you are aware, and it is not ok to act that way. The point is not to scold but to not be silent, to stand up for what is right. Who knows who might hear and the impact of this?

11 years ago

I know what it is like to feel like a pariah. I have all sorts of reasons for this, the most formative being that this is how my mother and her family, whom I had a lot to do with in my early years, felt about themselves & passed it on. It is only now that I can see this influence on myself clearly.

I have fought a lifelong battle against surrendering to identifying myself as a good for nothing pariah. What helped me immensely was my feeling from childhood of connection to Hashem and then later understanding that Hashem created me with a pure soul, and so on.

But I can really relate to the idea of the Pariah giving birth – to his or her transformed & healed self and also to actions that can do good. I can see these words apply to myself, not that these tasks are completed. It is necessary to work at this task of transformation, especially if life has continued to give one repeated messages of not being good enough or acceptable. I have found that kindness, affirmation at times, and words of wisdom along the way have helped me immensely with this. I wonder if I would now be quite broken if I had not been granted such blessings.

My experience has been that it is a complex matter to evolve from believing one is a pariah.

Marv Hershenson
11 years ago

Rabbi: As usual, you presented an incredible and insightful narrative regarding ones personal assessment of self. I often thought of myself as someone who was not smart (I was constantly comparing myself to my siblings who I consider were smarter than I.) I was a C student in high school and was not a good test taker. However, things began to change when I started college and realized that I was very bright individual who eventually received his Doctorate. But the funny thing is: the awkward feeling of not feeling important, not feeling smart was still present in the substance of my being. What changed? Certainly, therapy helped which also enhanced my spirituality. And I do realized that G-d does not create junk. But what G-d does do for us is provide us with various challenges (sounds familiar) to move forward and not get stuck in the mud of everyday reality. Thank you.

3 years ago

OH wow! Not about a leper being born, but a leper giving birth! i have gone cold at such wisdom, it applies to anything actually, our power to create and manifest and make whole, thank you

Violetta Tarpinian
3 years ago

Beautiful!! Thank you!

3 months ago

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

The Meaningful Life Center