Sponsored by Selma Woolf in loving memory of her husband, William, Zev ben Nachum z’l and Marlene Resnick in memory of Baruch Shimon ben Yehuda Leib z’l and Ben Tzion Michel ben Baruch Shimon z’l.
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the Metzorah. A person afflicted with some type of skin lesion or discoloration. However, this was no ordinary dermatological issue; tzaraas was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Talmud explains that tzaraas was a punishment for those who spoke lashon hara (slander about another). “Just as the slanderer creates distance between people, so too is he distanced from the community (by forcing him to live in isolation for the duration of his illness).” The Metzorah was not only banished but he was deemed tamei (ritually impure). The obvious lesson of tzaraas is the destructive nature of lashon hara. Words hurt. Words can maim, injure and even kill. But I would like to share two additional life lessons to be gleaned from the Metzorah and his ailment.
Lesson #1 – Your actions create your identity. The classic commentaries discuss the psychology of sin. Why would a person sin knowing the ramifications of such deleterious behavior? No matter what perceived benefit I may receive from the sinful act, the negative results and repercussions far outweigh the gain. Yet, we continue to sin. Perhaps, we justify our behaviors because we feel we can engage in negative actions while still remaining whole people. We try to convince ourselves that we can do certain things, but it won’t have an impact on who we are. We all want to be good, upstanding and even righteous people. As a result, we tell ourselves that my identity will remain intact even if I push the limits of correct behavior. Unfortunately, we know (at least deep down) that this is false. Who we are is a composite of what we do. Our identity is a composite of our actions. If I act a certain way, I become a certain kind of person. This is why the Metzorah is not simply banished, he is impure. This impurity reminds us that our actions change us. However, we must remember that the same way sin defiles the Metzorah, positive, dynamic and righteous activity cerates holy identity. Our actions create our core sense of self. What you do determines who you are.
Lesson #2 – There is a time and place for everything. The Kohen is the only individual who can rule on tzaraas; only he has the power to declare the lesion pure or impure. Yet Rashi (13:14) explains that there are certain times that the Kohen will send a suspected Metzorah home and tell him to come back another time.
“…there is a day on which you [the Kohen] look [i.e., examine the suspected lesion], and there is a day on which you do not look [i.e., when he may not examine it]. From here [our Rabbis] say that a bridegroom is exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the seven days of the wedding feast, for himself, his garments, and his house. Similarly, during a Festival [people] are exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the days of the Festival.” (Torath Kohanim 13:87)
But if Tzaraas is so severe how can we send the groom back to his bride? Or the pilgrim back to his family? The pilgrim must be attentive to his time in the holy Temple in Jerusalem. For the groom – the most important thing is that he focus on his new wife. When Sheva Berachos conclude, the groom will have to come back and present his lesion to the Kohen. There is a time and place for everything. Successful living requires the cultivation of a deep reservoir of patience. Many times in life there are things we want to accomplish or realities we desire to see actualized and we grow frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly or expeditiously as we had hoped.
Sometimes, our dreams don’t materialize at the desired time because we didn’t try hard enough and sometimes, it is simply because Hashem is saying: it’s not the right time. But there is something deeper. When we say “it isn’t the right time” it conjures up an image of “waiting” for the right time. The Jew never waits. If it isn’t the right time for one initiative, it means that it is time to work on something else. If it isn’t time for the groom to have his lesion examined, that is because it is time for him to work on his marriage. There is a time and place for everything – but we must never simply wait for something.
Although, we no longer have Tzaraas, the lessons, the meaning and the importance of this concept shapes our lives to this very day.
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.
“God spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying, ‘If a man has on the skin of his body a white blotch or a bright spot …. The Priest shall pronounce him ritually impure, for this discoloration is Tzaraas.’” (Vayikra 13:1-6)
It was a gift. Not the type of gift that makes you feel loved and appreciated; but the kind of gift that opens your eyes and heart to the realities of life. This was the gift of Tzaraas- loosely translated as leprosy. Tzaraas was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Talmud explains that if one spoke Lashon Hara– slander against another- they would be stricken with a strange skin disease. One would have to appear before the kohen– priest- to have the discoloration or blotch examined. If the spot met certain criteria, the kohen would declare the individual tamei- ritually impure. The afflicted individual would then be exiled and sent out from the community. His punishment was middah k’neged middah– reciprocal in nature. He sought to isolate another through negative and slanderous speech and therefore, we punish him in kind by isolating him from the community. Yet, despite the difficulties this punishment brought upon the sinner, it was a gift. It was through this sickness that the sinner was made aware of his negative and deleterious behavior. It was through Tzaraas that the slanderer was given an opportunity to fix himself and right his wrongs. During the days of isolation the sinner was able to reflect on his behavior and begin to take the necessary substantive, rehabilitative steps.
The Torah then proceeds to discuss the purification process. “This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzaraas, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen.” (Vayikra 14:2) Yet, the very next verse reads, “The kohen shall go outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzaraas has healed in the afflicted person.” (Vayikra 14:3) At first glance it appears the verses are contradicting one another. Is the Metzorah-person afflicted with Tzaraas- brought to the Kohen? Or is the Kohen brought to the Metzorah?
The answer is, both. As a result of his behavior the Metzorah was rejected by the community. The verse states, “All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain unclean. He is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Vayikra 13:46) The Talmud explains that even others who were themselves ritually impure had to avoid contact with the Metzorah. He was away from his family, distanced from his community, cut-off from his people. All this was to impress upon him the severity of his action. “You created a distance between one man and his fellow, therefore, you must sit alone outside the camp.” (Arachin 16b) The Metzorah was taught a harsh, yet profound lesson: there is no room within the camp and community for those who sow the seeds of hatred and animosity within our ranks. But along with this lesson came a fear – a fear that this feeling of rejection would forever isolate the Metzorah and make him think that he could never reintegrate. In fact, the Midrash comments, “And he shall be brought to the Kohen; on the day that he becomes pure he should not delay … even if we must bring him against his will.” Could we imagine a scenario in which the Metzorah was reticent to return for his purification process? Would he not want to be reunited with his family? Would he not yearn to resume his normal life? Yet, the Torah tells us that this concern does in fact exist. He may not want to come back. Why? Because the Metzorah may say, “Look what I have done to myself. Look how I have sullied my soul and reputation. I have hurt others and how will they every forgive me? I have fractured relationships, caused heart-break. I don’t think I can ever go back.”
The Torah tells us: on the day he is to be purified he should come to the Kohen on his own. He has paid the price for his negative behavior, he has repented, learned his lesson and will hopefully be more vigilant in his inter-personal conduct. But God tells the Kohen, “If you see he is not showing up, go get him. Run to him, embrace him, bring him back, tell him we, the community, love, care and forgive him. Make him feel wanted. Remind him that we do get second chances.”
There are times when people wrong and hurt us. Often, because of the emotional pain endured, we want nothing to do with the person who hurt us. Truth be told, after a difficult or hurtful interaction, a little distance (sometimes for a long time) is what is needed to heal the wounds and rebuild the self. But we must learn from the Metzorah the need to give second (third, fourth …) chances. We must remember that if the person who harmed us is truly penitent, understands what he has done and has demonstrated a desire to do things differently going forward, we must leave our hearts and doors open to reconciliation. People aren’t perfect and we must allow those around us to find their interpersonal redemption in the aftermath of relationship failure. But there is another lesson as well. We must learn to forgive ourselves. We all make mistakes. There are some who carry the pain of their mistakes with them every moment of every day. There are people who cannot let go of the pain of personal failure. The laws of Tzaraas teach us that we must forgive the other; but we must also learn to forgive ourselves.