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Parashat Tazria 5774 — 03/26/2014

Parashat Tazria 5774 — 03/26/2014

[If] it has turned completely white, he is pure. (Vayikra 13:13)

Since, as Rashi explains (13:3), it is a decree of the Torah that white hair [within a tzara’as blemish on the skin] is a sign of impurity, why should it be that when all of a person’s skin has turned white, he is considered pure?

   After contemplation, however, it is possible to learn from [these seeming paradoxical halachos] just how much the Almighty despises haughtiness, and how much He likes humility. …

   Now, it is well known that our Sages teach (Arachin 15b) that the plague of tzara’as strikes because of the sins of lashon hara and murder. They see a hint for this in the verse: “He who slanders his neighbor in private – him, I will cut off ” (Tehillim 101:5). [The Gemara makes a connection between the word atzmis (“I will cut off”) and the laws of a metzora.] Similarly, Reish Lakish teaches, “What does it mean, ‘This shall be the law of the metzora?’,,’ [Relating to the word metzora as an acronym, he explains:] It means, ‘This shall be the law of a Motzi shem ra – one who gives his fellow a bad name.”‘ See Arachin 16a, and the entire sugya.

   We also know that the punishment of the metzora is specified in the Torah: He shall dwell alone outside of the camp (Vayikra 13:46). By virtue of living in isolation, the metzora is brought to think of repenting for his grave sin. His heart will become submissive., He will admit the sin, repent, and be rehabilitated. However, the metzora needs all this only when all of his skin has not turned into tzara’as. Because there are blemishes just here and there, it is still possible for him to think “Perhaps it is just a chance happening, and not tzara’as:’ and proceed to harden his heart and not repent his sin. Specifically here in this case, the Torah commands that he be punished by banishment totally outside the encampment [or community] because the banishment, combined with living in solitude and the partial tzara’as, will help purify him of his sin. All of these elements together will help him realize that what has happened to him is Hashem’s doing. On the other hand, if the tzara’as has spread over his entire body, and covers him from head to toe, his heart is already humbled so much that he does not need banishment. A person such as this, whose whole body is stricken with plague, will not think, “Perhaps this is a chance happening.”  Rather, he will humble himself before the Holy One, blessed is He… Therefore, the Torah decrees, if it has turned completely white, he is pure. That is, “He does not need any further punishment, for his submissive, humbled spirit is his atonement.”  (Chafetz Chaim)

The laws of the skin affliction tsara’at are quite complex, and do not at all lend themselves to a physical or epidemiological explanation.  The law under discussion is a case in point – if  tsara’at were a contagious disease, like leprosy (Hansen’s disease) as it is often mistranslated, then it would make no sense at all to not quarantine someone with very extensive symptoms, while banishing from society those showing a single spot the size of a small bean.  Our Sages tell us that cases of tsara’at only occur in the Land of Israel, and only when the Temple is standing – since there is no way to become purified from tsara’at without bringing a series of offerings to the Temple, when that is no longer possible Gd, in His mercy, does not afflict us with tsara’at.  All of this leads us inexorably to the understanding that tsara’at is a divinely-given affliction that has a specific purpose, namely to lead us to repent for a number of sins, but primarily for derogatory speech.

Most of the comments I have read about the metzora who is covered from head to toe with tzara’at run along the lines of “if he’s that bad off that the affliction has spread to his entire body, there’s no longer any use trying to induce him to repent because he’s spiritually too far gone – he’s beyond help.”  If tzara’at is a wake-up call from Gd, He’s going to just let this fellow keep on sleeping.

The Chafetz Chaim appears to take the opposite approach.  He takes the fully-expanded tsara’at affliction as what it seems to be – a very bad case of tsara’at, and one that is impossible to dismiss.  He argues that the severity of the affliction alone is enough to trigger repentance in the sufferer, and that other methods, such as isolation from society, are not necessary.  It seems to me that the main point he wants to emphasize is that we not assume that anything that happens to us is actually happenstance.  Rather, we must recognize that every challenge we face is a test from Gd that is designed both to show us at what level we’re at spiritually, and to give us the opportunity to move to a higher level.

I don’t intend to referee this dispute, but it does seem that if Gd thought that someone who had tzara’at and didn’t repent and reform his life were beyond help, He could simply arrange for that person to be healed of the affliction completely.  In other words, the full-body tzara’at must be some kind of message, different from the milder form, and one to which, as the Chafetz Chaim points out, the person responds in an appropriate manner.  Some are moved by subtle messages, and others need to be hit over the head, but in either case, at least there is a response.  The real tragedy is when the person is so dead inside that there is no response at all.

The Torah returns to this issue of happenstance in the Tochachah (Rebuke) at the end of Sefer Vaykra.  There Gd explicitly tells us that if we treat His warnings as just random suffering, that He will be forced to increase their severity until we do wake up.  Interestingly the word used for “happenstance” is keri, which has the additional connotation of impurity (tumah) due to contact with or emission of semen.  Apparently there is a connection between our obliviousness to Gd’s messages and impurity.  Impurity is described in the Talmud and Midrash as a “stopping up” of the faculty of spiritual perception, which would of course make us more oblivious to Gd’s Hand in the activity of the world.  This vicious cycle must be broken by a conscious act of the will – the decision to repent and reform.

The Hebrew word for “repentance” is t’shuvah, which connotes return, namely, return to Gd.  This involves setting aside our own will and accepting that we are Gd’s creatures and are required to fulfill Gd’s Will, whether or not we understand it, or it fits in with our way of thinking, or if it’s easy, or any other consideration.  In order to do this we need to humble ourselves and realize that the universe does not revolve around us and our (often petty) desires.  Humbling ourselves ultimately means transcending our individuality, negating our small ego before the Creator – this is why Moshe Rabbeinu was “the humblest man on the face of the earth.”  This self-negation is never easy, and sometimes Gd gives us a little help – tzara’at for example.  Certainly, however, we would prefer to achieve this transcendance on our own.  This takes work, and, perhaps most of all, it takes being open to changing oneself.

Shemoneh Esrei

In the days of Mordechai and Esther, in Shushan the capital,

When the evil Haman rose up against them

And sought to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the Jews, from young to old, women and children,

On one day, the 13th day of the 12th month, the month of Adar,

And to despoil them of their possessions.

And You in Your great mercy, nullified his advice and thwarted his plans and

And turned his plan around on his own head,

And they hanged him and his sons on the gallows.

Purim is the second Rabbinic holiday (in order of the calendar – it was prior to the Chanukah miracle).  While the Chanukah story was the story of the attempt of the Hellenists to destroy Judaism, the Purim story (recounted in the Biblical Book of Esther) was a more straightforward attempt simply to destroy Jews.  We should all know the story from the yearly Megillah reading.  We have been very fortunate in North America that we have never faced such a situation.  Our grandparents in Europe were not so lucky, nor our ancestors in Spain in the 15th century, nor in the Rhineland during the Crusades, nor in England in the 13th century, nor in Russia and Poland at almost any time that Jews lived there.  Yet Gd has always saved us as a people, and sometimes even has exacted a price in this world on those who would destroy us.

It is said that the purpose of anti-Semitism is to make sure the Jews remain Jews.  Given the choice, as we have been to a great extent in this country, we have a disturbing tendency to assimilate ourselves into oblivion.  The recent, much-discussed Pew report appears to bear out this observation.  One thought we might bear in mind when we say this prayer on Purim, is that we can avoid such situations by remaining true to who we are, a nation that dwells alone, not to be reckoned among the nations (part of Bila’am’s prophecy).  As in the case of tzara’at, let’s learn to transcend ourselves and serve Gd before it becomes necessary for Gd to bring these disasters, or near-disasters, upon us.

Shabbat haChodesh

The last of the “Four Parshiyot” is Shabbat haChodesh, the Parashah of “the Month.”  It is always the Shabbat right before, or of, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, and the maftir is the portion of Parashat Bo where Gd tells Moshe and Aharon the laws of the Jewish Calendar, specifically that the year is to be reckoned as starting in Nissan.  Almost half of the Midrash Rabbah’s treatment of Parashat Bo deals with this section, and many, many commentaries treat different aspects of the Jewish calendar.  On the most superficial level, a slave’s time is not his own; now that we were to be a free people, we needed to learn, or re-learn, how to mark tiime and, more importantly, how to use time properly.  Using time properly is not as easy as it seems.  How often have we sat at the computer to do some work, then get to checking the news and reading “just one or two articles,” or playing FreeCell or catching up on emails, and looking up and 3 hours have gone by with no accomplishment?  How many of us can look back on our lives and really say that we made good use of all the time we were given, and which we probably thought was never going to end?  There is a story that the Chafetz Chaim once did t’shuvah on Yom Kippur for having wasted 8 minutes during the previous year.  As we head into a new year, let’s all resolve to make best use of our most precious — and non-recyclable! — commodity.