Tazria-Metzorah – Repairing Our Inner Boundaries

The work of repairing our internal order is really about aligning with the holiness inside of us.

Our 7th grade Modern Jewish History class has been engaging in an interesting conversation the last couple weeks about national boundaries.  The main topic was Israel’s Law of Return – the law that guarantees every Jew Israeli citizenship.  As part of the conversation, I asked our 7th graders why nations have laws about citizenship at all.  Many people are stateless right now, why not welcome everyone in?   It was not a rhetorical question, and several of our 7th graders seemed to feel that open borders would make for a better world order.  But one of today’s bar-mitzvah twins, Carson, was very clear – if there are no borders, there are no countries.  Without taking sides in that debate, I was impressed by the clarity of Carson’s understanding.

The range of opinions in the class reminded me of something else – a spiritual or emotional truth, rather than a political one.  Just as nations need borders, individuals need boundaries. But we all place our boundaries in different ways, we have differing levels of tolerance for blurred boundaries, and when boundaries shift, we all have different coping mechanisms – some healthier than others.  That was the deep personal insight our other bar-mitzvah twin, Hunter, shared with us this morning. Again, I was very impressed- this time, by the clarity of Hunter’s self-understanding.  When the world outside of us is chaotic, we can lash out and add to the chaos, or we can work on internal boundaries – self-control – to offset the external boundaries that are beyond our control.

For example: I shared a bedroom with my sister when we were growing up.  My sister needs a lot of order in the world around her.  I am much more comfortable with flow and disorder, and the spaces I occupy tend to look like a tornado hit.  You can imagine how it drove my sister crazy when my clothes, books, hair clips, and anything else I happened to touch ended up on her neat surfaces.  I can still picture it so clearly – her desk and dresser against one wall, each with a clear surface, her collection of international dolls arranged just so on a set of shelves she had my parents install for her above her desk. And against the other wall – my desk and dresser so covered in clutter you could barely see the wood surface. Unfortunately, we spent a lot of our childhood fighting over these differences. Today, we are best friends. It’s a lot easier for her to ignore my mess when she’s just visiting my space, and it’s a lot easier for me to force myself to be neat during the limited times that I am visiting her space.

Rabbi Dov Lerea wrote an insightful piece for the Times of Israel, reading this week’s Torah portion as a lesson in repairing boundaries.  As Carson explained, the Torah portion describes various diseases and their ancient treatments.  The rabbis famously interpreted one of the skin diseases as having been a punishment for Lashon Ha’Rah – literally evil speech – gossip or slander.  But Rabbi Dov points out that Lashon Ha’Rah is only the most famous wrongdoing attributed to this disease.  In fact, the ancient rabbis had a list of bad behaviors that could cause it. All of them, Rabbi Dov says, are violations of boundaries.

In addition to evil speech, the list includes sexual misbehaviors like adultery. It includes theft, abuse of communal funds or tax evasion, murder, and also idolatry and cursing God.  Here’s how Rabbi Dov’s explains the list:

All of these offenses transgress boundaries that protect people’s dignity, humanity, and sense of safety in the world. Additionally, they transgress the boundary between the human and the divine, boundaries that keep people humble and filled with awe acknowledging that there is a power and force beyond human beings to which people are responsible.

Some of the boundary violations, like murder, are egregious.  Some, like gossip, are things all of us are guilty of occasionally.  But when do we most often use our words to hurt others?  It’s when we feel vulnerable ourselves. We all have broken pieces inside of us.  We all have fears, we all have insecurities, and we have losses.  When we don’t acknowledge our brokenness, to use Hunter’s word it lashes out, and our inner breakage can cause breakage in the world outside of us.

So the rabbis imagined the sores, the broken skin caused by this magical disease, as an externalization of what is broken inside of us.  The ancient rabbis also stated very clearly that the magic stopped working when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  No one should ever think – God forbid! – that a person afflicted with psoriasis or eczema or leprosy is being punished for bad behavior.  But the idea that when something is hurting inside, our bodies might reveal it on the outside is not so far out.  Over the years, I’ve known several adults who break out with rashes or acne when they are under emotional stress.  Usually, it’s external stressors – conflict with a family member, or financial stress – that start it. But it’s the inner anxiety that directly causes the rash.  Psychologist Resma Menakem, in his book “My Grandmother’s Hands”, explains:

Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our thinking brain…The body is where we live.  It’s where we think, hope and react.  It’s where we constrict and relax…Trauma lives in the body.

When boundaries shift in the world around us, our inner lives are rocked.  It’s happening to all of us right now.  With many kids still Zooming into school, and adults Zooming into work, we have lost crucial boundaries between different parts of our lives. Spaces that we had come to expect to be separated are now forced together.  It would be like my sister and I were forced to live in the same bedroom again. In the meantime, other boundaries have gone up in places we don’t want them.  Friends we used to count on, we can’t meet with anymore.  When we socialize, we are literally either contained within a bordered box, or a piece of fabric forms a boundary between us.

And we all cope in different ways. Through this pandemic, some of us seem like we have been trying to burst out of our boundaries.  We get angry too easily, or too easily hurt, or are begging for attention in other ways. Some of us have needed to withdraw into our boundaries – by turning off the video camera, or locking ourselves in our bedroom, or just locking down in silence. And some of us are actually quite happy with the way the new boundaries have fallen.  Of course, no one is happy about the suffering the pandemic has caused so many other people, but some are quietly pleased to have an excuse to stay in pajamas in front of a screen all day.

The first step in curing that ancient skin disease was an examination by the priest. As Rabbi Ezray explain, the priest was someone who knew how listen, who would leave the camp to be with the person in their pain.  So too, the first step in repairing an inner breakage is to let in someone we trust to help us see what is wrong. Often, that person cannot be family.  Boundaries within families are the most complicated, and that makes them hard to evaluate from the inside. The great Rabbi Meir of the mishnah taught:

A person cannot see the blemishes of his relatives just as he cannot see them in himself.

The priest knew how to differentiate between actual disease, and simple skin discolorations. To help us heal our souls, we need someone who recognizes that difference does not equal blemish.  We all cope with shifting boundaries in different ways, and we all have different needs for boundaries.  My sister’s neat desktop – and her tendency towards structure and order – is not inherently better or worse than my messy desktop, and my tendency towards flexibility and disorder. The extrovert, who is suffering now from too many social boundaries, is not inherently better or worse than the introvert, who is suffering from too much togetherness.   It does no good to try to force others to fit our own sense of boundaries.

Because the work of repairing our internal order is really about aligning that internal order with the holiness that is inside of us.  It’s about finding the Godliness in there – the tzelem Elohim – and opening the channels to let it shine out.  And when we do that, each and every one of us is capable of greatness.