April 1, 2022 / 29 Adar II, 5782

Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep

Vayikra 12:1- 3:59

ill-being finds us
beauty is more than skin deep
itching is fleeting

Mycobacterium leprae

Yay – Tazria … I’ve been waiting for this parashat!!

After traveling for a month on the southern coast of Costa Rica —far away from the jungle insects on the eastern coast— I returned to Gandoca last week and, almost immediately, I once again found myself afflicted with so many bug bites. My body is not completely covered as it was shortly after I first arrived in this small village on the Caribbean coast last fall, but the memory of that agony is all coming back to me now.

As I plowed through this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, with its explicit and detailed descriptions of every sort of scaly, pussy, oozing type of body affliction my ancestors could imagine, I actually took some comfort there. Unlike other years when I just wanted to pass over this parashat (it always falls just before Passover), this year I feel like I am taking my place in the long line of those suffering from a type of bodily distress that is fleeting, but not fleeting fast enough. Somehow, there is comfort in knowing that others before me have forged this path.

And, really, not to be competitive, but what other spiritual tradition places smack in the middle of their holiest teachings an agonizing and creepy itemization of secretions and discharges and how to deal with them … and how to find a place —not only individually, but communally— to acknowledge unwellness in the body?!

In my current very itchy state, I am remembering last fall when almost everyone in the village here seemed aware of my of ill-being and my anguish, and offered me various homegrown remedies along with their prayers for my healing and well-being. Unlike the description in the Torah of sending people away, of isolating those who are experiencing dis-ease, the tribal village here holds everyone close—whatever their condition. Of course, I didn’t have leprosy (or whatever that extremely contagious and deadly disease might have been) but, still, no one here pushed me away in my compromised state.

I appreciate and love that both cultures —the agrarian-based Jewish tradition and the land of Pura Vida— are similarly very earthy, forthright and straightforward in placing the needs and care of the physical body right at the heart of their concerns. Ill-being is understood as being part of the well-being continuum. Nothing seems unspeakable. Nothing seems shameful. Nothing seems outside of holiness.

Today I can celebrate all of my sores and scabs and scars as markers on the journey. They remind me of where I’ve been. Even in my strength, I carry with me memories of unwellness. And in my state of affliction, I do have a sense that a feeling of well-being will some day return to my body once again.

If life unfolds and I am granted a long, full life, at some point my body will likely begin to wither without a bouncing back path.

When I was in high school, a dear friend of my mother’s was dying from a kind of cancer that had begun in her spine. She had lived with back pain for many years with every kind of diagnosis except cancer. Throughout that time, she felt like she had the strength to persevere.

It wasn’t until the cancer had progressed, and found its way to almost every part of her body, that she finally received a diagnosis. By then, there was no hope for a long life. By then, it was clear that no kind of available treatment could help her body return to a state of wellness. And that, for her, was the hardest part—knowing that her body would only become progressively weaker, without any possibility of bouncing back.

My current state of extreme discomfort and unrelenting itchiness is nothing like that. I do have a whole host of salves and creams and plant-based remedies —along with the great healing waters of the ocean— that do offer some relief. I know that, God-willing, in all likelihood my body will indeed bounce back. I know that this experience of sleepless nights and challenging days will pass within days or weeks.

Even when I feel overwhelmed by the ill-being that is currently wracking my physical body, I hold the awareness that I have been created in the image of the Divine and that I have the inner resources and physical wherewithal to persevere. I am in awe of my body’s capacity to endure invasion by creatures too tiny to even see. I am amazed at her capacity to heal and to return to a state of well-being.  And I remember, once again, that beauty is way more than skin deep.




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