I finally saw the blockbuster film Divergent last week, based on the young adult dystopian novel by Veronica Roth. The film, takes place in futuristic Chicago, following war. In order to keep the peace, society is divided up into five factions, those who are all knowing (Erudite), those who are honest (Candor), those who are brave (dauntless), those who are strive to keep the peace (Amity), and those who are selfless (adnegation). The film begins with the main protagonist and narrator the film, Beatrice Prior, played by Shailene Woodley, and her family affiliated with abnegation.
There is a telling scene at the very beginning of the film, in which the supposedly selfless Beatrice attempts to look in the mirror. Her parents slam the door shut and lock it, keeping the mirror in a vault behind lock and key. The message is clear: you cannot truly be selfless if you are worried about how you look and how others perceive you. We look in mirrors because we are concerned about our outer appearances. We are concerned with how we look, and thus how we are received.
For this reason, we cover up mirrors in the shiva house because we should not be concerned with vanity during a period of mourning. After all, the first words of the book of Ecclesiates speak volumes: “Hevel Hevelim, Vanity of Vanities,” offering the pessimistic view point that all of life is vanity. All that we do revolves around our appearance. All that we care about is how we look and how we are viewed.
This past Shabbat, we read the Torah portion, Parashat Metzora. While this year we read it on its own, it is often read as a double portion, with Parashat Tzaria. We rarely focus on this part of the narrative. When we do focus on it, we suggest, as many rabbinic commentators do, that tzaraat, a skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy, is punishment for lashon hara, speaking ill will, gossip, slander, and spreading rumors. We link it to lashon hara because we don’t know what else to do with it. We focus on the cause, rather than the issue at hand, the skin ailment. However, if we ignore the significance of the punishment at hand, then we ignore the true message of tzaraat.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Eliot Malomet, points out that this type of punishment is reflective of what is wrong with us in society. Throughout the Torah, God punishes in a variety of ways: the complete destruction of cities like Sodom and Gemorrah, a flood that wipes at all life except for those aboard Noah’s ark, the earth swallowing Korach and his followers who rebel against Moses. So, why in this case does God punish with a skin disease?
We live in a world of vanity. We live in a society where we care about appearance and too often judge someone solely on appearance. We want to present the best version of ourselves. We incorrectly assume that this means we must focus on appearance. Before a job interview we shave and shine our shoes, we get a manicure or a haircut. We put on our nicest suit, or our most professionally looking blouse. And in anything we do, we hide our blemishes. We put on make up to hide our pimples. We cover up scars or birthmarks. We are so worried about physical appearance.
Society doesn’t help, with half naked airbrushed models on billboards and in magazines. Thanks to media, advertisements, television shows and movies, including the movie that I mentioned above, we live in a hyper-sexualized world, a world where we are pressured to look young, and be thin and beautiful.
Maybe tzaraat isn’t a punishment for lashon hara, as the rabbis suggest. Rather, it is liberation from society. Even dating back to the Torah, society was over-sexualized. Biblical society focused on lust over love, and treated human beings as objects that others could take ownership of. Tzaraat wasn’t a punishment as much as it was an eye-opening experience, a reminder, like the protagonist in Divergent, to not worry about looking in the mirror, to not focus on our outward appearances, and instead focus on who we are on the inside.
Mesekhet Sanhedrin 98a drives home this point:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was visited by Elijah the Prophet. Knowing that Elijah’s return would announce the coming of the Messiah, Rabbi Yehoshua got anxious. “When will the Messiah come,” he asked him. “Why don’t you go ask him yourself,” Elijah replied. Yehoshua is flustered, looking around expected to see the Messiah. Is the Messiah a religious figure? A political leader? A wealthy individual? Who is the Messiah? Where can the Messiah be? Elijah informed him: “he is sitting at the gates of the city, among the poor, the sick, and abandoned, changing the binding of his wounds.”
The message: messianic redemption comes when we stop focusing on vanity, when we stop worrying so much how we look and focus more on how we act. I believe that tzaraat was a brutal reminder that we focused too much on outer beauty and ignored inner beauty. The punishment of this parasha was not illness as it is otherwise defined in the Torah; it is not death; it is not loss of life. The punishment was that people weren’t pretty. The punishment was a blessing, reminder to all, and a message to all, that skin disease or not, we are all beautiful, as long as we emphasize inner beauty and stop caring so much about our outward appearances. Let’s stop looking in the mirror so much. Instead, let’s look at each other, and see the divine beauty, the divine spark, in each of us.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky