Yiddish has great onomatopoeic words for dirt/dirty: schmutz/schmutzadick. In case 10th-grade English didn’t kick in, onomatopoeia describes a word that is what it sounds like. In this case soiled or unclean.
This week’s reading is about cleansing body and soul (and your clothes along the way) when your body shows visible evidence of sin. Bleaching away what defines you as having done wrong. In this case getting rid of spots–which could be anything from psoriasis to leprosy.
When we’re teenagers, spots are usually hormone-related. Hormones are a great source for sinful thoughts, regardless of age. In adulthood our bad actions cover a broader range, though the spots are usually less visible.
Although most of our secrets are less dark than we fear, we do work to keep them hidden. If someone gets too close to uncovering them, we might become insular, grumpy, or even angry, act the jokester, or use another form of hyper-drive to diffuse our distress.
But what if you couldn’t hide evidence of your misdeeds? What if your spots were there for everyone to see? If you were ritually declared unclean? What then?
In this story the afflicted is Miriam, Moses’ sister, accused of the seemingly mild sin of having gossiped about him. Officially the bad action is l’shon hara, speaking badly of another, from disparagement to rumoring.
There’s the story of a rabbi who takes the town gossip to a windy rooftop and has her slash open a feather pillow. Imagine, says the rabbi, if each feather was a story you told. Could you undo what you have done?
True or not, what is said in a moment can change how we think of someone for a lifetime.
Our inner judgements are no less damning. Our inner lady Macbeth, walking around muttering, cursing, and praying for the damn spot to be Out! Out!
When our misdeeds are recognized (or their telltale flags, the spots, become visible) we are shamed and lose social standing. But there’s a formula for cleansing, and then re-admittance back into the tribe. Slate wiped clean. Like the kid toy where you raise the cellophane and your picture disappears. Or its modern equivalent, the delete key.
Would you be willing to endure public acknowledgement that you’d done something wrong (even if folks didn’t know what) and a week of isolation, to earn that clean, refreshed screen? And remember that if folks are gossiping about what you might have done, they risk earning spots of their own.
Imagine a world where you didn’t gossip about or judge others and they did the same for you. What if we could choose this, instead of having it decided for us? What if we could devise a cleansing ritual that got us to the same place?
Judaism has the mikveh, a ritual bath, three times fully immersed in water, releasing the past and the future, then committing to being fully present. Can you imagine your own version of that? Can you imagine it working? It might not clean up acne or the past, but it could lighten your soul, and your preoccupation with what you’ve done that wish you hadn’t.
Can you imagine a world free from spots and judgement?
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