Tazria-Metzora 5773 – The three holy garments, and the personal touch

Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1-15:33)

Thought, word and deed

As my own personal response to a section of Torah that I find difficult to relate to in modern times, I have been looking at Tazria-Metzora through the lens of a traditional, but unrelated, teaching I learned from Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi(ZT”L), the founder of the 20th century Jewish Renewal movement. This is the teaching about the three ‘holy garments’ of the soul, l’vushim, of the n’shamah. These are: machshavah, dibbur, and ma’aseh – thought, word and deed.

First, there is the garment of ma’aseh – deed. We are taught that a mitzvah – a good deed – or an act of teshuvah (repentance) can ‘clean up’ a ‘soiled’ neshamah or soul.

Second, we have the garment of dibbur – the word. Words can be holy and powerful. A conversation can be used to turn ourselves to higher matters. Words can be how one soul or person relates to another soul or person in deep authenticity, and mutual respect and care. Hence the Jewish teachings on lashon harah – speech that lacks true care or awareness.

Third is the holy garment of machshavah – thought. This is how we express ourselves to ourselves. All of our thoughts are observed by God. At a psychological level, we know that our thoughts influence our words and actions, our emotional wellbeing, and even, to some extent, our health.

God clothes us in these holy garments of thought, word and deed, through which we can express our own soul and life force in the world. This brings an extra meaning to the morning blessing: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, malbish arumim – “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, the One who clothes the naked.” As the Sufi master musician Hazrat Inayat Khan said, “This is not my body; this is the temple of God.”

And now perhaps we can begin to see a connection between these three holy garments, and today’s double-portion. In Lev. 15:31, we read:

“You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.”

With an imaginative leap, we can consider our bodies, our relationships, our communities, and the world around us, as the Tabernacle, the container for the holy purposes of the Divine. Let us look again at the strange affliction tzara’at that was said to descend on a person’s skin, their clothing, or the walls of their house. And as we make three connections between the garments and Tazria-Metzora, I have three questions.

The skin, I think of as machshavah our private thoughts. Like our skin, our thoughts are the garment closest to us, largely unseen by others, but integral to us. In the portion, when a person’s skin is ‘unclean’, they must dwell apart, outside the camp (Lev 13:46). Here’s question one:

What kinds of thoughts pull us out of relationship with ourselves, others, or our community, and what kinds of thoughts would help us reconnect?

We can think of our clothed selves as how we present ourselves and relate to other people, which here could be dibbur, relating through the word. The portion tells us that the final cleansing of clothing comes through burning it (Lev 13:55). So the second question is:

“How can we ‘clean up’ or ‘burn’ – ie transform – our use of language and words to purify them?”

Finally, we can think of the walls of our houses as ma’aseh, the things we make, and our actions in the world – our deeds are the physical evidence of the state of our soul, or inner life. The portion tells us to scrape down the infected walls, remove stones that can’t be cleansed, and replace them with new ones (Lev. 14:41-42). So, the third and final question:

“What stones do we need to remove and replace – what of our own behaviours do we need to stop and what do we need to start doing?”

The personal touch (Lev. 14:3 Priest goes out of the camp)

What I have said so far may seem a bit theoretical, and a lot to absorb in the few minutes I have been talking. So here is one idea that comes from Tazria-Metzora itself, to give us a vision of what we can do at a very personal level to put theory into practice, and make a real difference.

From time to time, sometimes for reasons that we are not party to, a person has to step away from full life in the community, or relationship with us. In this week’s portion, there is no sense that the person ‘outside’ is less of a person, or somebody to be rejected. The priest keeps connection with them, visiting them, honoring their privacy and their need to be apart. Whatever help the person needs does not have to happen in the embarrassing light of public scrutiny. And in the oil ritual, the priest touches the unclean person, re-integrating them back into community. Touching the ‘outsider’ is a compassionate gesture and powerful welcome, and a public signal to the community to accept this person.

The Jewish vision of healing the world through dedication and g’milut Chasidim, acts of loving kindness, is one that we nurture especially on Shabbat. Who do we need to forgive or reconnect with? Who needs us? Who needs our welcome? No one is excluded. In the prophetic vision of Micah 4:6, we learn that God will ultimately gather in hatzoleiah those who don’t walk a straight path, hanidachah those who have been outcasts for whatever reason, and hareioti even those whom God has harmed. Who are we to do any less?

[1] Zalman Shachter-Shalomi: ‘Attributes and garments of the soul’ in Wrapped in a holy flame: teachings and tales of the hassidic masters

© Alexander Massey, Oxford, 2013

2 thoughts on “Tazria-Metzora 5773 – The three holy garments, and the personal touch”

  1. Janet Berenson

    Hi A, finally got round to reading this. It is very good and links well with Rabbi Howard Cooper’s sermon on Shabbat (see his blog). Thanks for sharing it.
    Janet x

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