In this week’s Parsha we learn of the laws of the Tzaraas, loosely translated as leprosy, though in fact the Talmud explains that this was no ordinary physical ailment. Tzaraas was the physical manifestation of spiritual sickness. Specifically, if one spoke Lashon Hara (slanderous or negative speech) about another, he or she would be stricken by this disease. We are told in great detail about the process for declaring someone a Metzorah as well the multi-step purification process. While there are many intricate details involved with this process, one thing is clear. It is only a Kohen who could make the final determination as to whether a particular discoloration was in fact Tzaraas. Someone could study the laws of Tzaraas for years, but only a Kohen could utter the words Tamei(impure) or Tahor (pure). It is this Kohanic utterance that determines the ritual status of the individual.
But why the Kohen? Why is he vested with this ultimate authority? The person who contracted Tzaraas spoke negatively about another (as mentioned above) and in doing so had driven a wedge, created a chasm and orchestrated a divide within Klal Yisroel. Who can repair this damage? It is only a Kohen, a descendant of Aharon whose entire being was dedicated to creating peace, harmony, love and respect within the ranks of the Jewish people who could heal this stricken individual. The Metzorah must come face to face with a man who is the very antithesis of what the Metzorah represents. The Metzorahdivides, the Kohen bridges. The Metzorah sows the seeds of animosity, the Kohen nurtures the sapling of love. The Metzorah sees the worst in everyone, the Kohen sees the beauty in every soul. It is only the Kohen who can repair that which the Metzorah has destroyed.
The laws of Tzaraas may not be currently applicable but the message certainly is. We must make sure the Kohen triumphs over the Metzorah. We must do what we can to prevent animosity, slander and negativity within the ranks of our people. We must foster an atmosphere of achdus (unity).
We speak often about unity. Throughout the ages, rabbis, sages and scholars have all written on the need to avoid conflict and create national cohesion. The Talmud warns us repeatedly regarding the dangers of being a divided people. It sounds so simple, yet it often feels so elusive. Where do we start? What is the first step in achieving this lofty goal of Jewish unity? There is an incredible passage in the Zohar (Shmini, 36a):
Rabbi Pinchos ben Yair was once travelling and his donkey began to bray happily. Rabbi Pinchos said, “If my donkey is braying happily it must be that another Jew is on the road approaching us. As he rounded the side of the mountain he met Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Pinchos said, “I now know why my donkey was so joyous!” Rabbi Elazar embraced and kissed Rabbi Pinchos. Rabbi Pinchos said, “If we are travelling in the same direction, let’s travel together.” To which Rabbi Elazar responded, “Once I have found you, I will travel in whichever direction you are headed.”
The Zohar then goes on to discuss the various topics they pondered as they were journeying together. What is so striking about this story is the donkey. Rabbi Pinchos ben Yair had a donkey which brayed happily at the presence of another Jew. This is because Rabbi Pinchos ben Yair was one who greeted every person with a smile and warm countenance. When you greet someone with a smile you convey to them a sense of importance and meaning. A simple smile allows a person to feel recognized. So many people walk through this world thinking they are unimportant or extra. So many people feel the world doesn’t need them and no one would care or notice if they were no longer here. When you smile at someone you are making the statement, “You are important. Important enough that I am going to take the few extra moments, flex my facial muscles and extend a greeting to you. I see you, I recognize you, we are part of the same nation. Even if I don’t know you, deep down, I do.” And when you do this enough you begin to change the world around you. The feelings of friendship, warmth, companionship and love for the other are felt not only by the recipient; they permeate those around you and change the emotional climate. When you take the time to smile and acknowledge the other it even impacts your donkey.
The road to achdus, national unity is a long and circuitous one. We must find our inner Kohen and our external smile; and when we do, we can change the world.
In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God appeared to Aharon, the bereaved father and instructed him:
“And the Lord spoke to Aharon saying, ‘Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations.’” (Vayikra 10:8-9)
The Kohanim (priests) may not drink wine either before or when performing the Temple service. On a most basic level this was to ensure the sanctity and appropriateness of Kohanic behavior. In addition, the Kohanim were often consulted on matters of Jewish law and therefore, had to possess the clarity of mind to rule on complex issues. But why was Aharon given these instructions now? This could have been communicated at the beginning of the Mishkan’s inauguration. Yet, God chose to communicate this to Aharon in the aftermath of the loss of his sons. Why?
The commentaries offer many different approaches. I would like to share with you an incredible insight by the Ben Ish Chai (Chacham Yosef Chaim, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, 1835-1909).
“… For the Temple and wine are two opposites. The Temple itself has the ability to fill the heart of a person with incredible joy … however, wine was created to comfort mourners or those who have suffered misfortune, as the verse states, ‘give wine to the embittered soul.’ Therefore, when one comes to the Temple which is the source of all joy, why would he need to drink wine?”
Wine was created to dull pain, to take the edge off difficult situations (when used in moderation). The Talmud explains that upon returning from burying a loved one, mourners were given a “cup of consolation,” a large glass of wine. God created something that can help remove some of the searing pain of life’s challenges. But this is not true joy. This is a masking or a dulling of the pain. At times, this is necessary as one is not yet ready to confront and tackle his broken heart. True joy comes from the Temple. True joy comes from connection with God. Happiness comes from within. The Kohen cannot drink wine when he comes to the Temple, because God wants the Kohen’s joy to come from his service and connection and not from an intoxicating beverage. God wants the Kohen to experience true and complete joy and not a contrived state of happiness resulting from masking life challenges. God wants the Kohen to feel simcha, not simply the absence of tzaar (pain).
God was speaking to a bereaved father. Aharon’s world had imploded as he had just experienced the loss of his beloved sons. God tells Aharon, “I know that life will never be the same for you. I know that although you have accepted My will and decree, your heart is shattered in a million pieces. But you can find a way to reclaim some measure of happiness through a life of sacred service and connection to the Divine. Don’t seek out happiness through dulling your pain, find joy in a life of meaningful, dynamic service.”
Wine has its place. There is no Jewish life-cycle event which doesn’t include wine. In just a few weeks we will demonstrate our freedom by drinking 4 cups of wine at the Seder. Wine can help you feel happy – but it can’t make you happy. True happiness comes from within. True happiness is the result of living a meaningful life filled with connection to God and the Jewish people. Real simcha is the result of knowing that we are each making a difference and our livesare purposeful. Genuine joy comes from knowing that we are striving to become the best version of ourselves. The wine can help at times, but true joy can only be found in the Temple.
“And the flesh of his thanksgiving peace offering shall be eaten on the day it is offered up; he shall not leave any of it over until morning.” (Vayikra 7:15)
Among the various sacrificial details contained in this week’s Parsha, the Torah teaches us the laws of the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving offering. This offering was brought when a person was saved from a life-threatening or inherently dangerous situation. It was a sacrificial rite which enabled the individual to thank God for deliverance and salvation.
The Imrei Emes (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter of Gur, 1866-1948) raises a fascinating question. Every korban (sacrificial offering) has a consumption window. One was permitted to eat the sacrifice for a certain amount of time. After that permitted time had elapsed, the korban becamenossar (left over) and prohibited. Most of the sacrificial offerings were consumed for two days and one night. Yet, the Korban Todah was only consumed for one day. This is especially intriguing given the fact the Todah was a very large offering comprised of multiple loaves. Why did the Torah mandate a shorter time for consumption?
The Rebbe provides a beautiful insight:
“Korban Todah, mi’viin oso al ha’nes, v’harey b’chol yom va’yom misrachashin itanu nissim chadoshim. V’eych yochlu mi’nes shel emesh al neys shel ha’yom. (The thanksgiving offering is brought for a miracle -which God has performed for the individual-. Each and every day God performs new miracles for us. How can we eat and celebrate yesterday’s miracle, when we have to celebrate today’s miracle)?”
We experience miracles every day. Sometimes, they are supernatural but more often they are embedded in the ordinary and mundane circumstances of daily life. Our job is to discern the miraculous events which unfold around us. We can only eat of the Korban Todah for one day (the day on which it is offered), for tomorrow we must not focus on the miracles of yesterday, but devote ourselves to seeing and appreciating the miracles of today.
We stand at a miraculous crossroads. We just finished celebrating Purim and we must now begin to prepare for the Yom Tov of Pesach. Purim is the Yom Tov of “ordinary miracles” cloaked in everyday circumstances. Pesach is a celebration of the supernatural prowess of God. During this season of miracles, we must focus ourselves on seeing the daily miracles which unfold around us.We should each say, “Today, I opened my eyes, I flexed my fingers, I stood on my own two feet. I can speak, I am able to think, and I am able to take care of my bodily needs. I have a warm coat, shoes without holes and a full stomach. There is some money in my wallet and parents who love me. There is a roof over my head and clothing in my closet.”
Are these events any less miraculous than the fall of Haman or the splitting of the sea? In truth, we should each have to bring a Korban Todah every day, to thank God for the incredible miracles He has bestowed upon us. Every day generates its own distinct Todah obligation. We have the obligation to actively look for my daily miracles. We must carve out time to contemplate the incredible blessings and events which unfold around us every day.
We don’t yet have the opportunity to bring an actual Korban (sacrifice), so we must do the next best thing; offer our thanks with our words. Take the time to say, “thank you Hashem, for all of the miracles. I know that I often focus on what I lack and what is deficient and broken. But I want You to know, if I could, I would bring you a Korban Todah every day. That day will come, but until then I give you one simple word, Todah; thank for the miracles of my past, thank You for the miracles of my present and I thank You in advance for the miracles which have yet to unfold.”
Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” From the moment we are first introduced to Adam in the beginning of Genesis it is clear that man is prone to falling and failing. In this week’s Parsha, the Torah begins the lengthy section detailing sacrificial law. There are offerings brought for thanksgiving and celebration and there are offerings brought for atonement in the aftermath of sin. There are sacrifices for the mistakes of the common man and there are special sacrificial rites for the sins of the leader.
“If a leader [of Israel] sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; if his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished male goat.” (Vayikra 4:22)
In this verse the Torah describes the events that occur if the Nasi, the leader of the Jewish people, inadvertently issues an erroneous halachik ruling (permitting that which is prohibited) and acts upon his own ruling (thereby committing a sin). The verses describe the special sacrificial service to atone for his transgression.
The verse begins with the Hebrew word “Asher,” translated as “if.” In a bit of a play on words, the Talmud (Horiyos 10b) explains: “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said: Praiseworthy (Ashrei) is the generation whose leader brings a sin-offering for his inadvertent transgression.”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai teaches us that it can be difficult for one in a leadership position to admit he has done something wrong. The leader may be concerned about his image, about his ability to “lead” in the aftermath of an admission of guilt. And so, praiseworthy is the leader who can admit his faults, seek atonement and attempt to restore his spiritual standing.
But shouldn’t the Talmud have reserved its praise for the leader who has not sinned at all? Shouldn’t Rabbi Yochanan save his “Ashrei” accolade for the leader who does not suffer a spiritual lapse? Such a leader can serve as incredible role model for his constituents and followers. If our leader can remain above temptation, if our leader can avoid the spiritual and physical pitfalls of life, we can as well. Why not laud the Nasi who never suffered the set-back rather than the praising the one who did?
Rav Menachem Dovid of Amshinov (1850-1918) explains that in fact the reverse is true. A leader who has not suffered personal failure will be unable to forgive the shortcomings of another. A leader who has never tasted the bitterness of personal defeat will not appreciate the struggles of those he must lead. The leader who always succeeds will look at those who do not with a sense of disdain and resentment. Therefore, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai says, “Praiseworthy is the generation whose leader has stumbled, for this is a leader who will understand, appreciate and empathize with the difficulties his flock must face.”
The words of the Amshinover resonate with incredible personal relevance. We all stumble, fall and suffer set-backs along the journey of life. Each of us (in our own unique way) has tasted the bitterness of defeat and has felt the pain of self-doubt. These experiences must sensitize and allow us to be accepting of the faults and shortcomings of the other. It is precisely because we know how frail we are that we must accept the frailties of those around us. In the aftermath of personal failure, we must learn to forgive ourselves in order to get up, move forward and make up lost ground. When we see the failures of others, we must forgive, understand and aid them in getting back up. It is because we know how much we yearn to be forgiven for our transgressions that we must be quick to dispense forgiveness to those who wrong us.
“Praiseworthy is the generation whose members recognize their own failures and are able to forgive and accept the shortcomings of others.”