Tazria-Metzora 5778

Making the humble proud[1]

וצוה הכהן ולקח למטהר שתי-צפרים חיות טהורות ועץ ארז ושני תולעת ואזב
The Kohen shall command [as follows]: he should take for the one seeking purification two live, kosher birds, a rod[2] from a cedar tree, a thread of crimson wool, and hyssop[3]

This week’s double parsha deals mostly with the laws of tzara’as, most commonly translated as leprosy. While it may be a whitish skin condition, in reality it’s a totally unrelated spiritual malady[4] with physical symptoms. Chazal tell us[5] that someone who contracts tzara’as, known as a Metzora[6], usually committed a certain sin[7]. One example is that of haughtiness. As a result of his sin, he is infected with a disturbing skin condition, and has to have his status established by a Kohen. If the Kohen determines he is spiritually impure, then he is. The opposite is also true. The Torah describes how a Metzora can purify himself once declared impure. It’s an entire ritual that takes place in the Temple, and includes bringing certain offerings. Part of the offering includes a rod from a cedar tree. What is the significance of including this?

Rashi explains[8] that since the cedar tree is taller and more beautiful than all other trees[9], it symbolizes the haughtiness which caused his initial blemish. However, this explanation is insufficient. This process is for someone whose blemish has already been healed[10]; he merely seeks spiritual purification. It would seem he has already repented and removed any trace of haughtiness. His malady was very degrading[11], and as such he no longer considers himself better than others. What more should he do[12]? Why does he have to bring an offering which reminds him of his previous haughtiness? He’s past that point! It can’t be to tell him to lower his stature, as at this point he’s already accomplished that.

One approach is, that we can’t say that being proud is definitively abhorrent. Chazal inform us[13] that every person should say: “the world was created for my benefit”. We are adjured[14] to be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and mighty as a lion in our service of Hashem. We see we are not lowly; we have self-worth. On the flip side, meekness isn’t definitively good. Too much of it can lead to depression and despair. A person thinking they’re a nobody isn’t considered praiseworthy. Therefore, we see the traits of pride and humility have their time and place. They can be used properly or abused[15].

The Metzora initially had an improper amount of pride, which lead to haughtiness. This caused his blemish, and subsequent humiliation and degradation. He now has reach a very low level[16]; he doesn’t think very highly of himself. Just like his haughtiness was undesirable, so too his new sense of lowliness. It will lead to depression and despair, and the Divine Presence only rests with someone who is joyful[17]. We are commanded[18] to serve Hashem with joy. The Torah therefore commands him to bring a rod from a cedar tree, the loftiest of trees. It’s to inspire him to realize his self-worth. This way, he’ll find the appropriate balance between these two traits[19].

Another explanation takes a different approach. The Zohar says[20] that just like a person is punished for saying something bad about someone else, which they shouldn’t have said, so too they are punished for not saying something good to someone else, which they should have said. The Metzora, after his ordeal, is feeling pretty worthless. As a result, even if the opportunity arises, he may refrain from speaking something good to someone else. A friend may need a compliment; his neighbor might appreciate hearing “good morning”. Since the Metzora is so depressed, the thought to say these things may not even dawn on him. Therefore, the Torah commanded him to bring a rod from the cedar tree. Once he picks himself back up, he’ll be able to give his friend a compliment, or properly greet his neighbor. This way, he’ll be able to live harmoniously with others once again.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Shem MiShmuel to Leviticus 14:4, from the years 5673 and 5676

[2] Rashi ad. loc.

[3] Leviticus loc. cit.

[4] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos Tumas Tzara’as 16:10

[5] Arachin 16; Vayikra Rabbah 16:1

[6] מצורע, a contraction of מוציא שם רע, someone who causes a bad name (Arachin 15b)

[7] Besides haughtiness, the consensus is that loshon hara and murder cause tzara’as (ibid). Arachin 16a adds oaths in vain, illicit relations, theft and stinginess to the list, whereas Vayikra Rabbah loc. cit. cites lying, thinking about sins, running to do sins, and giving false testimony (citing Proverbs 6:17-19 as the source)

[8] ad. loc.

[9] Minchas Yehudah ad. loc., cited by Sifsei Chachamim

[10] Leviticus 14:3

[11] See ibid 13:45, 46

[12] Especially since Rashi loc. cit. says the way to heal himself is to lower his stature. Sounds like once he is healed, he has done his job

[13] Sanhedrin 37a

[14] Avos 5:20

[15] See http://parshaponders.com/tetzaveh-zachor-5778 for a discussion on this idea

[16] See Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 9:2

[17] Pesachim 117a

[18] Psalms 100:2

[19] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos De’os 1:3, 2:2

[20] parshas Tazria 46b