Rabbi Silber explores Tehillim Chapter 58 and the Weekly Parshiyos of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim.
“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.
– Dedicated in loving memory of Sholom Elazar z’l ben Rav Elimelech Bentzion
And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent (Vayikra 10:1-3).”
It was to be a day of rejuvenation and reconciliation. The dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) symbolized the return of the Divine Presence to the camp of the Jewish nation (after the separation caused by the sin of the Golden Calf). But alas, it was not to be. The death of Aharon’s two sons transformed this day of joy into a day of pain, grief and loss. But was their sin? What was the nature of their “foreign fire?”
The commentaries provide many different interpretations and insights. The Talmud (Eruvin 63a) explains that Nadav and Avihu decided on matters of Jewish law in the presence of their teachers, Moshe and Aharon. This fundamental lack of respect and breakdown of authority led to their deaths. Others explain they were inebriated when serving in the Mishkan. The Midrash writes that Nadav and Avihu ventured into the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies and were punished as a result. Other rabbinic commentaries explain that they took fire from outside the confines of the Temple to offer the incense instead of taking from the Divine fire that descended from the Heavens.
Perhaps, there is another insight into their sin which can be gleaned from the Haggadah. In the beginning of the Seder we recite Ha Lachma Anya, this is the bread of affliction.
This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover (partake of the Paschal lamb). This year we are here – next year, may we be in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves – next year, may we be free.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv) provides a beautiful insight into this paragraph by sharing a moving story. During his tenure as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Lau was conducting a communal Seder on an air force base. There were over 1,000 people in attendance from all walks of life. Rabbi Lau began the Seder with reading and translating Ha Lachma Anya. As he concluded, a young pilot stood up and said, “Rabbi, I feel these words, this text – has lost its meaning. Why should we say this year we are here, next year may we be in the Land of Israel? I was born here, I am a sabra. Why would I say, this year we are slaves, next year may we be free? I was born free and I have always been free?
Rabbi Lau provided a dramatic and beautiful answer: “In my youth I had the privilege to study under many great teachers. Great men like, Rav Elazar Man Shach, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and I was privileged to spend Yom Kippur with each of them. I stood next to these great men as they recited the Al Cheyts (list of sins for which we repent on Yom Kippur); I heard their muffled cries and saw the tears stream down their face. I often wondered – did these great rabbis commit these heinous acts which they were confessing? It couldn’t be. Even “regular” people don’t commit half of the sins outlined in the list. Why would these great rabbis confess sins they had not committed? Truthfully, the Baal Shem Tov also beat his chest while confessing this list, the Vilna Gaon cried out when enumerating these sins. Surely, these giants of our past had not committed these transgressions! And then it dawned on me. These great rabbis were not confessing their sins – they were confessing and seeking forgiveness for sins of the nation. These great men realized that although they had not committed these aggrieved acts – there were Jews who did. Perhaps, those Jews would not or could not confess and repent. These holy rabbis decided that we will do teshuva (repentance) on their behalf. We will cry their tears, we will utter their apologies, we will beg for their forgiveness. I realized that the true mark of greatness is the ability to think beyond one’s self and to connect to the plight, circumstances and reality of the other.”
Rabbi Lau then turned to the young pilot and said: “You are truly privileged to be here and free. But what about all your brothers and sisters who are not? What about your fellow Jews who are suffering and enduring persecution? What about those who are not able to celebrate Pesach either because they don’t have or they don’t know? You may be here – but they are not. You may be free – but they are not. Let us be their mouthpiece. Let us utter these words on their behalf. Let us ask Hashem on this sacred night to bring all of those who are there – here. Let us supplicate before God and beg Him to allow all of those who are slaves to taste the sweetness of freedom.”
Perhaps, this was the mistake of Nadav and Avihu. If one looks closely at the verse – it says, V’Yikchu Bnei Aharon, Nadav V’Avihu Ish Machtaso, And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan. The Torah goes out of its way to state “Ish, each man” and “Machtaso, his pan” (possessive); identifying Nadav and Avihu as individuals. The job of the Kohen is to represent the nation; the mandate of the Kohen is to be the embodiment of the collective. Perhaps, the mistake of Nadav and Avihu was that they acted as individuals. What they did was to satisfy their own needs and wants. They served God the way they deemed fit without regard for the needs of the collective. They were not acting as the emissaries of the Jewish people – they were each an Ish, an individual. When we stop thinking about the collective and only think about ourselves –we end up making terrible mistakes.
This Shabbos we will IYH announce the arrival of month of Iyar. We have begun the Sefira count towards the Yom Tov of Shavuos. It is during this time of year that we focus on our personal growth the development. We ready and prepare ourselves to reexperience the upcoming Sinaitic revelation. Proper preparation cannot be limited to a focus on the self. Holy preparation requires a recognition that we are we are part of a greater collective called, Am Yisroel. On Pesach we became a nation and it is during these days that we must focus on how to be a nation. Being part of Am Yisroel means feeling a sense of responsibility for the other. It means recognizing that even if everything is ok in my life – there are others who are struggling and hurting and it is my responsibility to find some way to help. It is easy to become spiritually self-centered, but we know that true growth and spiritual self-actualization comes about when you carry the entire nation of Israel in your heart and in your soul.
At first glance, the Haggadah appears to be a collection of random verses, stories and statements. However, upon further reflection we come to understand the intentional yet, nuanced structure of this ancient script. The Talmud (Pesachim 115) explains Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise. We begin the Seder by discussing the “low points” or disparaging chapters of our national existence. The sages disagree as to which “low point” we should begin with. Shmuel explains that we begin with, “Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves.” We acknowledge that we did not begin as a nation of free men and women. We were slaves who served a human master. Rav opines, “Mitchila Ovdei Avoda Zara Hayu Avoseinu, in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters.” We were not always monotheists, we did not always pledge our allegiance to God, we served and paid homage to other gods. According to Shmuel, over the course of the Pesach Seder we work our way to celebrating our physical freedom. According Rav, the Seder is the opportunity to celebrate our newfound spiritual emancipation. Rav and Shmuel may disagree on the specific beginning and end points but do agree on the structure of the Seder night; Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise.
What is the meaning of this rabbinic framework? Why must we start with the negative or disparaging chapters of our national existence? Why not begin and end with our freedom, emancipation and positive identity as the nation of God?
The commentaries on the Haggadah share many approaches and answers. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 1809-1879) explains that the best way to make a dramatic point is through contrast. One appreciates light when one has been exposed to darkness. In order to fully appreciate the freedom granted to us on this sacred night, we must first acquaint ourselves with servitude. In order to feel physically free, we must spend time reminiscing, Avadaim Hayinu L’Pharoah B’Mitzrayim, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Only after we engage in historical reflection and taste some of the bitter marror, can we truly thank God for redeeming us. In order to fully celebrate our spiritual emancipation, we must reflect what it was like to be a spiritual wanderer, not knowing what to believe or how to connect. Mitchila Ovdei Avoda Zara Hayu Avoseinu, in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters. Only when we remember our past can we truly appreciate our future.
The great Maggid of Kohznitz (Rav Yisroel Hopstein, 1737-1814) provides another beautiful insight. The Maggid explains that the greatest danger we face in life is believing we are beyond salvation. A person may think to himself, “I have done so many terrible things, I have tarnished my soul, I have sullied my reputation, I have failed to actualize my potential; what hope is there for me?” Maschil B’Genus, even if the beginning is degrading, even if the beginning is stunted and handicapped, Misayeym B’Shevach, I choose how the story ends, I can change, I can live better, do better and create a beautiful future. We were slaves, we were more animal than man, we were viewed by others and we viewed ourselves as cattel and property. And yet, look at us now; we are a strong and free people. We were idolaters, spiritually bankrupt and estranged from God and yet, we managed to find our way home. We lifted ourselves from serving the creations of our hands to serving the King of Kings. We cannot always rewrite the past but we can absolutely decide how to script our future.
Perhaps, there is a third lesson as well. Life requires patience. Events occur and we search for answers. Situations unfold and we try desperately to understand their deeper meaning. We want insight and clarity and we want it now. Clarity will come but it often requires the passage of time. Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise, the difficult life situations will have a positive resolution (not necessarily the resolution we desire, but positive nevertheless). However, just as it takes time to reach the Shevach (praise) contained within the Haggadah; it takes time to see our personal praise and resolution as well. It will come, but we must be patient.
Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise; the rabbis were not simply giving us a format for the Haggadah, they were providing us with a format for life. To actualize our freedom and maximize our ability to shape our personal and national destiny we must internalize the messages of the Haggadah. We must remember that while building our future; we must reflect on the events and messages of our past. No matter how far we have wandered, no matter how estranged we have become from God, ourselves and one another, no person is beyond salvation. We must bear in mind that resolution, understanding and happiness will come to those who are patient enough to wait.