Friday, April 24, 2009

Tazria-Metzora: The Hardest Thing

Tazria-Metzora happens to be my father’s bar-mitzva parsha.

He spent a good chunk of his formative years as a [very good] ba’al korei, ; having been through kol haTorah kula numerous times, he still marvels at how it remains the most challenging parsha to lain.

I have never tried to lain the parsha, bun in the few cycles of shanim mikra-echad targum I’ve completed, I’ve always found these two parshas the most difficult to understand (with Truma and Tetzaveh a close tie for second).

I think its no accident that the inyanim of tzaraas are the most difficult in Chumash, analogous to the difficulty of avoiding the avera it purports to correct, lashon hara. (I have a quite learned distant cousin who best illustrates this: “There are shivim leshonos. I chose lashon hara.”)

Lets start with the more “conventional” vorts:
First, from R' Isaac Sher z"l (Slobodka rosh yeshiva), as recounted by R Shlomo Katz in the 5760 Tazria-Metzora Hamaayan:

[W]hen a person speaks lashon hara and is stricken with tzara'at, this demonstrates…Hashem's closeness to that person himself. Today, no one gets tzara'at because we no longer are close enough to Hashem that we can expect such a clear sign of His displeasure with us.

Second—and I can’t remember the exact source, but it was from Chabad-sponsored Parsha sheet—was that tzaraas affliction were generally Divinely “reserved” for those at high madregas; in other words, if someone was a habitual speaker of lashon hara, that person generally never got tzaraas.

In this vein comes the third source, R’ Jacob Solomon:

By being completely covered in tzaraat symptoms he would be be ritually pure. But by being pure he would not have the privilege of being secluded by the Kohen. Instead his tzaraat would be on view to the public - they would know that the Almighty singled him out as a gossip or slanderer. He would therefore have been publicly shamed by the Almighty as a means of correcting his misdeeds. []

Taking all three of these together and applying them to what might be termed the contemporary scene, we can draw a completely different type of conclusion. One might simply use the Gemara in Baba Basra that states that everybody, every day, commits some form of infraction concerning avak lashon hara, as a starting point. The Gemara is not playing sown the issur; but it recognizes that everyone is guilty of it in one form or another.

I would go so far as to say that, when you look at how both tzaraas is deemed to be a sign of Divine love (R’ Sher), and simultaneously a vehicle for Divinely ordained public embarrassment into compliance (R’ Solomon), one can also understand how in both cases the Divine intent could be subverted, as it were. I can think of two ways: one, how one being afflicted by tzaraas (and suffering in silence, pace R’ Sher), instead of becoming a cautionary tale, can become a lightning rod for further slander (“…did you hear what happened to…?); and, two, in the case of the one completely covered in the “pure” tzaraas using said state as a badge of honor.

More specifically, I would not necessarily bemoan that, per R’ Sher, “ we no longer are close enough to Hashem that we can expect such a clear sign of His displeasure with us.” It seems as if G-d decided that, as “kulan be’avak lashon hara”, it k’vayachol didn’t really pay to directly intervene every time someone spoke lashon hara. The “hester panim” involved in this case seems to be more due to the allowance of unimpeded social functioning.

(This, possibly, contrasts with the eventual inefficacy of the “mei sotah”, which stopped working when the accusing husbands apparently became as incontinent as their allegedly wayward wives; this was a case of avoiding implementation of a moral double standard.)

Lest anyone accuse me of trying to down play the severity of lashon hara (I wish I could, and I'm sure I wouldn’t be alone in that), I think we can actually learn a few constructive—and not necessarily contra-halachic—lessons.

That is: I gossip, and at the risk of being choshed be’kesherim, so do you. (I hope you don’t, for your sake, but can any of you plausibly claim you don’t?) People find reasons to say anything, about anyone, on the flimsiest of pretext; again, not to say that words are meaningless—but they can be mitigated if you’re willing to not take everything personally.

Irrespective of the loss of “Divine Love” involved in the disappearance of tzaraas as a corrective measure, G-d seems to be willing to “let go”—if we are.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Vayikra-Tzav: Cleanup

Whether I've mentioned this inyan before or not, I think it bears repeating, especially with regards the current world economic matzav—and its backstory.

There are those who may wonder why the first pesukim taught in “cheder” [or the modern-day equivalent] are the first five pesukim in Vayikra, and the question has been answered in many ways.

I will posit that is has something to do with the inyan discussed in Rashi: “Adam ki-yakriv mikem”: just like Adam owned everything at the commencement of maasei Bereshis [as he was the only person around], and therefore could not have been nechshad in gezel, so too your spiritual endeavors and striving should be equally free of the taint of misappropriation.

Or, in plainer English, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you.

Not to say that the “Torah al regel achas” that Hillel taught [Shabbos 31a]--"that which you hate, don't do to others--a paraphrase of the command to love your neighbor—is any less an “entire Torah”; but teaching not to take what’s not yours is likely the clearest illustration of said principle, which makes it so basic, and such a perfect teachable moment to those starting out on “mikra”/”Vayikra”.

The parallels to the economic mess don’t need to be borne out [i.e., I don’t have to name names]. I think we could say that the brouhahas over bonuses seem to indicate that there just might be this idea that people are taking what doesn’t belong to them, so there is still hope for us.

Now that was last week. But it connects to this week. As R’ Shlomo Ressler pointed out this week:

“Our Parsha, Tzav, informs us that the priests’ first task of the day was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day (Leviticus 6:3). Is there any significance to this being the priests’ first order of business with which to start the day?

Rabbi Avi Weiss explains that the priest begins the day by removing the ashes to illustrate the importance of his remaining involved with the mundane. Too often, those who rise to important positions separate themselves from the people and abandon the everyday menial tasks. By starting the day with ash-cleaning, the Torah insists it shouldn’t be this way.”

I’m going to try to take that idea a step further. You’ll notice that, in describing the inyan of “Adam ki Yakriv Mi-kem”, I mentioned that one’s spiritual endeavors should be free of any taint of gezel. Why did I mention—or, for that matter, why even use spiritual endeavors—to illustrate the idea of why stealing is wrong?

I think that Rabbi Weiss’ idea of trumas hadeshen illustrates another basic, if ignored truism: that, while it may or may not be true that “no good deed goes unpunished”, what IS true that the “spiritual business” [I just made that up…I think] is, of necessity, a dirty business. Even the most sublime of offerings—the Olah, which is all for On High—leaves ashes that need to be cleaned up, AND those ashes most be lceaned up on a daily basis—FIRST.

I think we can link “Adam ki-yakriv mikem” and trumas hadeshen in two ways.

One: don’t be afraid [or, as Rabbi Weiss is trying to say, don’t act “too important”] to clean up a “mess”. It just night be the task of someone of your stature. I’ve discussed before how Yoram Hazony, in his seminal treatment of Megillas Esther, “The Dawn”, makes a demarcation between “morality” and “purity”, and how the former influenced Mordechai’s actions in the Purim story. Specifically, Mordechai was willing to get “dirty” when necessary [e.g., the sha’ar hamelech was not exactly a beis medrash. But read Hazony for further explanation.]

Two: one can take the “yakriv mi-kem” admonition against gezel specifically to a more genral principle: don’t ever expect that ends almost never justify the means. The principles of “aseh docheh lo ta’aseh” and “es la’asos lashem heferu torasecha”, among others, are important exceptions, but ones that prove the rule generally. And realize that even if you are truly makriv mi-kem, there will always be deshen to clean up, and you should be prepared to—and, more importantly, not be ashamed or too proud—to clean up.