Shaya Cohen -


Black and White: Torah Symbolism

Our actions change the world, and in ways that we usually cannot see. Take, for example, the spoken word. Moments after a word is spoken, all physical traces have vanished. And yet words are profoundly powerful. Words of criticism or praise, words of conciliation or command all leave a mark for all who hear them. So while the word may have vanished without a trace, the impact of the word can change someone for the rest of his or her life.

The Torah wants us to understand that there is an entire world that cannot be measured using physical instruments. This is the world in which the impact of our deeds and words can be found: it can be in the impact left by our words, or the result of interacting with things that are spiritually unable to be elevated. So, for example, touching a dead body renders us spiritually unready for elevation until we have been spiritually cleansed.

There are several chapters of the Torah that deal with the need to be cleansed, such as with a spiritual malady called tzaraas (KJV mistranslates as “leprosy”). This malady is caused by treating others poorly (in word or deed), and it is a diagnostic method by which we learn that the way we treat others changes them – and it changes us as well. G-d wants us to be kind. G-d wants us to be constructive and loving and helpful. And when we are not those things, we can be put on notice – afflicted with tzaraas.

The symptoms of tzaraas, however, are not obviously understood. The key word in all the descriptors is the word for “white,” lavan. If someone has a white spot, the priest can diagnose it as a case of tzaraas.

So how do we know tzaraas is cured? The simplified answer is that either the white vanishes, or a black hair is seen rising. White, and then black: first the ailment, and then the way forward.

Why? What is the symbolic meaning of all of this?

The answer is a simple linkage between the words as they are found earlier in the text. The malady is marked by appearing white, lavan. And it connects perfectly to the person Laban (spelled in the Hebrew lavan). Lavan was a piece of work. We know he deceived people and played games with them in order to build and cement his own power. He resisted anyone leaving his grip, even trying to gain their own freedom. Even when his daughters and grandchildren leave, Lavan insists that they belong to him and not Jacob. Lavan undermines others in every way imaginable. And so his name, Lavan became the main symptom of the spiritual ailment that marked treating others badly: the color white. Lavan, the man, becomes the prototype for lavan the symptom!

So much for being diagnosed with this spiritual malady. What is the evidence of being cured or cleansed? A black, shachar, hair. This word is found describing the revelations that come with the rising of the dark – the dawn:

As darkness lifted, the messengers urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.”

Jacob was left alone. And a figure wrestled with him until the lifting of the darkness.. … Then he said, “Let me go, for darkness is lifting.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So the lifting of the darkness indicates a resolution of a situation: clarity and a clear path forward.

Note, too, that Jacob’s connection to shachar happened after he had left Lavan behind. The very sequence of the words in Genesis are a precursor to those same words describing the malady of tzaraas. The Lavan period ends, and the blackness rises, indicating clarity going forward. In this way, coming out of tzaraas can be compared to Jacob leaving Lavan. In both cases, the person who has left the lavan behind finds themselves in a state where they can spiritually grow and reconnect with G-d.

This all leads to a pretty breathtaking conclusion: the entire document that deals with this ailment is all about teaching us to not be like Lavan! And those who wish to exit that state should emulate Yaakov – wrestle with themselves until the rising of the dark, when they can emerge as new people, freed from the taint of evil.

P.S. I am aware that later sources reverse the meaning: Isaiah uses “white” for innocence. This is not how the Torah apparently sees the symbolic meaning of black and white.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith work]

Comments are welcome!