I’ll never forget that morning.

My father never had a particularly quiet voice, but this time, he was positively booming. So much so, all my friends were giving me strange stares.

It was a Sunday morning in my yeshivah, and he had come to join the annual “father and son weekend.” Part of the program was for the fathers to study with their sons on Sunday morning. As sleepy teenagers, we were used to slogging our way through the early morning study session.

But here I was, sitting across from my relatively even-keeled father, and not a soul in that room was able to sleep as we learned the text together and his naturally loud voice reached ear-splitting levels. My bemused friends later told me about my father disrupting their morning naps, and I must say, I was quite proud of my enthusiastic dad.

He taught me a valuable lesson that day: get excited about your Judaism!

White = Bad?

The portions of Tazria and Metzorah are largely devoted to the laws of tzaraat, a mysterious rash of white lesions that appeared on the skin in Temple times.1 According to Torah law, this rash renders a person ritually impure.

The Torah prescribes an elaborate system, but generally speaking, if a person spots a white lesion on their skin, they go to a priest in the Temple for inspection. If the priest declares the lesion impure, the person quarantines for seven days, before returning for reinspection. If the spot has diminished, they are OK. But if it has spread, they are expelled from the camp and must sit outside the city with no human contact. Thereafter, they bring an offering and undergo a purification procedure.

Let’s read some of that:

And the kohen shall see him on the seventh day a second time. And the lesion has become dimmer, and the lesion has not spread on the skin, the kohen shall pronounce him clean . . . However, if the lesion spreads on the skin after it has been shown to the kohen . . . the kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is tzara'at.2

In other words, the more the white lesion spreads, the more impure they are.

Why? What is the significance behind the fact that white symbolizes impurity? And why must it be brought to the kohen specifically? Why can’t a person self-diagnose, or go to a friend to take a look? Why must it be a priest in the Temple?

Red Is for Life, White Is for…

Generally speaking, a white or pale complexion is not a good sign. It’s usually when a person is feeling faint or weak that they turn white, indicating an acute lack of energy, and to some degree, a loss of life.

In contrast, one who is full of energy is usually flush with color, even ruddy. After all, red is the color of blood, and blood is life. So, when a person is feeling animated and full of life, blood rushes around the body, lending the flesh a vibrant hue.

As with everything in this world, these physical characteristics represent a spiritual reality.

According to Jewish thought, life flows from the soul that animates the body. The Kabbalists taught of a soul that is a literal piece of G‑d that was injected into each human being, and it is this soul that animates the body every second. When the soul departs from the body it leaves behind a lifeless corpse. That’s why death is associated with impurity, for the G‑dly energy has left, leaving a coarse, physical entity behind.

Spiritually speaking, when is a person full of energy and life? It is when they follow G‑d’s word and plug into the G‑dly energy that is their soul. But when they cut themselves off from the source of life, i.e., they sin against G‑d, they actively damage their own soul, their own life.

The Tzara’at Barometer

Now, we don’t usually get to see an actual physical manifestation of this spiritual reality. When we lose our temper, don’t pray the right way, or say something nasty, we don’t actively feel or see that loss of spiritual life.

Tzara’at is a spiritual ailment that reflects this inner reality. As the Talmud famously tells us, this unusual ailment comes from the grave sin of lashon hara, speaking ill of others. And so, the rash is white—indicating the loss of life that occurs when one sins.

That’s why tzaraat causes impurity, because it’s more than just a punishment for doing something bad. The lesion indicates a loss of spiritual life due to sin, and it is that loss of life that causes impurity.

But the thing is that tzara’at can be very small, a tiny white blotch—so much so, that not always does the person even discern that something is amiss. And when they do, it’s not always readily diagnosable. “Perhaps it’s not really so big, maybe it’s not really so bad, who knows?” The challenge of admitting and recognizing that you’ve done something wrong is a familiar thing, and so it is with this person sporting a small tzaraat: they can’t be sure it’s really that bad.

So what must they do?

They must go to the kohen—a servant of G‑d ensconced in a holy environment and tasked with a holy job. Holy as he is, the priest is able to discern the true loss of life that is the small blotch of white, and inform the person that there’s something that must be fixed. Thus, he declares the person impure and prescribes a purification process, namely a path for teshuvah.

If the white lesion spreads, that spells trouble, indicating further loss of life. If it recedes, that means that death is disappearing and in its place, a holy source of life is reemerging.

Get Excited About the Right Things

This complex tale of white spiritual ailments tells us that holiness and G‑dliness are synonymous with red, raging, passionate life. So, if you’re not getting excited, something is amiss.

Everyone gets animated and excited about something. Some people are into sports, avidly following their team and screaming with excitement when they win the superbowl. Others get excited about money, while still others are passionate about art, boring everyone around them with long discourses about the beauty of this painting and the finesse of that sculpture. Everyone has something they’re excited about.

So, if your sports passion is red hot, but your Judaism is pale white, that’s a tzaraat problem. If you get excited discussing politics with your friends, but you’re dragging your feet to shul, or dreading a Shabbat meal with your family, then your Judaism is “pale” and it runs the risk of sputtering and dying out.

The message of the tzaraat is that real life is the spiritual life of your soul and her connection to G‑d. That’s something worth getting excited about. So don’t let the Yankees get all your red-hot passion; leave some of that for your Judaism as well.3