Last night, I saw it again. A familiar psoriasis lesion. Just below my ankle.
Every winter, it grows in the dark under winter socks and boots. Every summer, it disappears, healed by light shining through my sandals.
No wonder Torah sees tzara’at – psoriasis– as a mysterious and edgy event. Psoriasis chooses a random victim and never lets go. Year after year, it assaults us in predictable cycles of ulceration and healing. Modern physicians have failed to find a cause beyond the generic euphemisms for medical ignorance. Stress. Genetics. Auto immune.
Why? Why? Why are our bodies attacking us? What have we done wrong?
Traditional Torah commentators* know. We get tzara’at lesions because we are motzi shem ra— we have spoken badly of another person. Sure, alliteration connects this cause and effect . The metaphor fills in the blanks of a strange Biblical story about Miriam (Numbers 12). And the theory can’t be falsified. Because our speech can always be purer, more compassionate.
Why would we use a moral accusation to explain a medical problem?
Because, says philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), we are experts at self-centered ignorance.
We recognize our human desires. With goal-oriented actions, we try to fulfill them. We hope to maximize our advantage.
This cycle of desiring and seeking is so familiar, it shapes our understanding. We even imagine that God directs the universe towards a goal. Of course, we don’t know what the goal is. So, drawing on our experience, we assume it’s our advantage.
Our narrow mental lens reinforces itself. How could it not? Our human mind has only so many pathways. When we understand something clearly, we say, “the universe is orderly!” When our senses feel good, we say “the universe is beautiful!” But, let’s be honest. When we say, “God created an orderly, beautiful world,” we really mean, “God created a world that works for human beings.”
When bad things happen, we apply our usual categories. The events that touched us, we say, were directed towards us. Why? Because we did something undesirable to God. And God reacted by disadvantaging us. But what did we do? We don’t really know.
We don’t know because moral logic does not govern human fate. But do we acknowledge this empirical fact and let go of our habits of thought? No. We just keep searching for God’s criteria.
The search seems normal enough…until we reach a ludicrous conclusion. Like blaming a frustrated patient for her disease. At that point, we ought to ask Spinoza’s question: What were we thinking? And maybe take seriously his answer: You weren’t thinking!
For more reflections on Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) , click here.
*Talmud b. Arakhin 15b, Sifre Deut 175, Midrash Rabbah Devarim, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachya, Ramban, Tur, Me’am Loez, S.R. Hirsch…