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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

The Kohen has the first and last word in regard to negaim, plagues. Toras Kohanim states that it is a gezeiras haKasuv, Biblical edict, that the rendering of tumah and taharah, impurity or purity, is solely in the hands of the Kohanim. Sforno adds that the Kohanim are the ones who teach and guide the people in the spiritual dimension. Interfacing with them all will encourage the metzora, afflicted sinner, to repent and mend his ways.

While the Kohen is the decisor concerning negaim, Chazal say that "one can see/inspect all negaim, except his own." Even a simple, clean-cut plague cannot be decided by the Kohen - if it is his own plague. This teaches us that the closer one is to an object/subject, the less objectivity he has. The ability to see clearly becomes greatly impeded. A judge may not accept shochad, a bribe, because bribery blinds the judge's ability to see. In the Talmud Kesubos 105b, Chazal say that the word shochad is made up of the words shehu chad, "he becomes one". The judge who accepts a bribe becomes "one" with the litigant, obscuring his objectivity.

The Baal Shem Tov takes an alternative approach to Chazal's objection to one viewing and rendering judgment on his own plagues. He explains it homiletically. All plagues that a person sees chutz, in someone else, are a reflection of nigei atzmo, his own shortcomings. He goes as far as to say that one who is free of any failing will not be able to see anything wrong in another person.

Horav Moshe Reis, Shlita, relates that when the saintly Belzer Rebbe, zl, moved to Tel Aviv, whenever he saw a car moving on Shabbos, he would assume that it was a woman on the way to the hospital to deliver a baby or it was a medical emergency in transit. He could not fathom that chilul Shabbos, desecration of the Holy Day, was occurring. He always felt that anyone who drove on Shabbos only did so for a serious medical emergency.

The Baal Shem Tov writes that one who sees bad in another person, it is like looking through a mirror - he sees a part of himself. Consequently, he feels that one should relate to another person's failing as he would to his own. Just as he finds a way to gloss over his own shortcomings, so, too, should he be able to seek justification for his fellow's inappropriate behavior.

The Rambam in Hilchos Isurei Biah 19:17 writes that "all Jewish families are b'chezkas kashrus, in a state of purity, and one may marry into any family. If, however, a member of the family has a brazen personality, contends with everyone and does not get along with people in general, it is sufficient reason to distance oneself from that family. Furthermore, if a member of the family is always finding fault in others, questioning people's pedigree and calling them mamzeirim, illegitimate - we may suspect that he himself is of illegitimate descent."

The bottom line is that he who is always finding fault in others probably has a defective character himself. It is this deficiency that is provoking his malignant perspective of people.

Considering the above idea, we are better able to understand a number of Chazal's maxims. In the Talmud Sotah 2a, Chazal say, "One who sees a sotah, wayward wife, b'kilkulah, in her degradation, should prohibit wine to himself by becoming a nazir." While it is certainly important that one takes the sotah's degradation to heart, why should he become a nazir? He has not sinned. He just happened to be walking by when she was being publicly shamed. Is that sufficient reason for him to become a nazir? Whatever happened to the concept of "innocent bystander"?

Rav Reis explains that had there not been a serious dormant deficiency within the psyche of the innocent bystander, he would not have seen the sotah. The fact that he saw, that he was privy to her degradation, transforms him into a "not so" innocent bystander. Hashem is conveying a message to him - one which he should immediately act upon.

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef applies this idea to Chazal's dictum in Pirkei Avos 4:1, "Who is a wise man? He who learns from all men." The phrase "all men" means all men, regardless of their background and level of observance and virtue. If one notices a failing in his friend, he should take it as a message that a trace of this shortcoming is also a part of himself. Regrettably, too many of us are so obsessed with looking at our friends' failings that we disregard the message this deficit is communicating to us.

This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification. (14:2)

One who is determined to correct the sin of lashon hora is confronted with two paradoxical issues. One the one hand, Chazal teach us that the Torah goes out of its way not to reveal any failing whatsoever even in regard to an inanimate object. The Midrash teaches us that Hashem did not reveal the specie of the Eitz Hadaas, Tree of Knowledge, because an aveirah, sin, was actualized through it. We see this idea in regard to an animal with whom a woman had an immoral relationship: it is killed. While we understand that the woman should be put to death for her iniquity, why do we blame the "innocent" animal? Chazal explain that it would be improper for the animal to be walking around the marketplace in full view of the populace, so that people would remark, "That is the animal which was the cause of that woman's death." Seeing the animal recalls the iniquity, as well as the person who was involved. We see from here the extent to which the Torah goes to spare anyone any shame - even a hardened sinner.

Yet, we find a mitzvah in the Torah that stands in direct contradiction to this rule. The Torah in Sefer Devarim 24:9 admonishes us, to "Remember what Hashem, Your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt." Ramban notes that this mitzvah is a positive commandment with the same weight as the mitzvah, "Remember the Shabbos Day to keep it holy". We are taught to learn and remember the result of Miriam's unfair criticism of her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu. The tragic punishment was tzaraas covering her entire body. We now wonder why, on the one hand, the Torah does not reveal the specie of the Eitz Hadaas due to its negative effect on mankind, but reveals - and even makes a mitzvah out of revealing - Miriam's criticism and its tragic consequences? Why is the Torah not just as concerned with Miriam's esteem as it is with the inanimate Tree of Knowledge?

Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, explains that the incident with Miriam teaches us a lesson. It is Miriam's eternal privilege that her ordeal reminds every generation of Jews that death and life are in the power of the tongue. The prohibition of lashon hora does not apply when it can be helpful and meaningful to people. The Torah publicizes the episode with Miriam because we can learn from it. Her ordeal has a therapeutic effect on others, helping to guide them.

We must add that while lashon hora is a terrible sin with dire consequences, keeping still and not speaking up when someone's name is being disparaged is equally reprehensible.

The Torah admonishes us in Sefer Vayikra 19:16, "You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed". One is prohibited from telling someone what others have said about him behind his back, if there is even the slightest possibility that it will cause ill will. A rachil is related to the word rocheil, peddler, because a gossipmonger is like a peddler who goes around "peddling" his filthy gossip. He is a sick person who thrives on hurting others. He is a backstabber who receives his enjoyment in life from hurting people behind their backs. The pasuk begins with the gossipmonger and ends with the enjoinment not to stand aside when our fellow's blood is being spilled. Horav Chaim zl, m'Volozhin explains the juxtaposition. While it is prohibited to gossip, it is equally forbidden to stand by idly as someone's reputation is being slandered. One who is quiet, who suddenly becomes self-righteous at a time when another person's name is being sullied by people who are either sick, envious or puerile followers - who will do anything for attention - is guilty of standing by while his fellow's blood is being shed! Lashon hora is a dreadful sin; murder is much worse!

Cedarwood, crimson thread and hyssop. (14:4)

The sin of lashon hora has its roots in arrogance. The sinner possesses a moral flaw, a character deficiency which allows him to think that he is better, more intelligent and more virtuous than others. He is the savior that is going to rid the world of those whom he perceives to be corrupt. He overlooks one thing: his own haughtiness, which breeds contempt for others, provokes him to think ill of them, catalyzing him to speak callously about them. The teshuvah, repentance, process takes this into consideration by making him bring cedarwood, crimson thread and hyssop along with his sacrifice, so that he will first purge himself of his addictive arrogance before he eventually achieves atonement.

The cedarwood represents the individual's haughtiness, as the cedar tree grows tall and imposing. The crimson thread is dyed red with a dye from a lowly creature, and the hyssop is a lowly bush; both symbolize the sinner's newly-found humility.

Sefer HaMeshalim offers a powerful analogy that lends insight into the underlying source of arrogance. A donkey was once loaded with strong perfumes, whose pleasant odor was sensed at a distance. As it walked through the streets, the donkey noted with pride how people tried to come close to him. Of course, being a donkey, this went to his head. When he returned to the stable that evening, the donkey was all mouth as he pompously talked about his greatness and how all the people sought to get close to him.

The next day the load was different. The donkey was carrying fertilizer, which had a strong, fetid odor. As the donkey walked through the streets, people moved as far away as they could. No one would go near the beast with its foul-smelling burden. When the donkey returned to his stable that evening, he was as arrogant as before: "Today the people were really running scared of me. They were intimidated by my presence and ran from me. You see, one day I can have people falling over me, and the next day I can have them running in fear."

The wise fox who overheard the donkey's foolish braying came over and said, "Foolish donkey that you are. It is not you that people fear or love. It is your load. When you carry perfume, they gravitate to the wonderful smell. When you are carrying fertilizer, they run from the foul odor. They could care less about you. You are nothing. It is what you carry that determines the way people react to you."

The same idea applies to people. The baal gaaveh, arrogant person, thinks that everyone respects and fears him. Little does he realize that it is all in his mind. The baal gaaveh has a powerful imagination. He has conjured up in his mind that everybody reveres and admires him, when, in reality, it is far from true. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially if it is being wasted on an imaginary obsession with oneself.

Something like an affliction has appeared to me in the house. (14:35)

Otzar Chaim has a wonderful thought regarding the teshuvah process and how the Kohen or rav can achieve the greatest success with the sinner. In the Mishnah Negaim 2:3, Chazal state that in a house which is dark - and, therefore, difficult for the Kohen to see the nega, plague - we do not open the windows to increase the light and make the nega more accessible. We can derive a profound lesson from this halachah. It is a message to the Kohanim, rabbanim, to anyone whose function it is to rebuke, to reproach, to guide and mentor: Do not search for sins. Do not drive the sinner away by searching for more sins, by delving into the reason the person has sinned. If the sinner opens up on his own - fine, but do not depress him any more than necessary, because you will only succeed in turning him away.

A house that is dark, is analogous to the sinner who confesses to an indiscretion, but does not want to elaborate on it. Leave him alone. His confession is sufficient grounds for you to begin working with him, reaching out to him to bring him closer. Do not elaborate his sins; it will only distance him from continuing his teshuvah.

Then there is the flip-side: the choteh, sinner, who feels he has to unload himself of every sin that he has ever committed. The story is told that a baal teshuvah once came to Horav Eliyahu Gutmacher, zl, and asked him to prepare a teshuvah process for him. While Rav Eliyahu was perusing a sefer in an attempt to respond to the young man, the baal teshuvah began confessing his sins. He did not stop. He just kept enumerating sin after sin as if there were no end. Rav Eliyahu looked up from his sefer and said, "It is enough! You do not have to continue detailing your sins. I have one question, however, which bothers me as I listen to your litany of sins. What did Hashem do to you that provoked you to sin against Him so much?"

What a powerful and compelling question! We do it all the time. We sin - we repent - and we sin again. Do we ever wonder what our actions are doing to Hashem? In our smug arrogance, we only think of ourselves: Our sin, our teshuvah. We never think about the effect of our actions in Heaven. Hashem is a loving Father Who tolerates so much iniquity, but do we ever think about it from His point of view? What did He ever do to us that we should pay Him back in such a manner?


He shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

Horav Chaim zl, m'Volozhin says that the metzora is brought to the Kohen even against his will. The one who slanders quite often makes the Kohanim and the spiritual leadership the subject of his disparaging remarks. He is now compelled to go to the Kohen to achieve atonement.


And behold! - The tzaraas affliction has been healed from the metzora. (14:3)

The Alshich HaKadosh notes that it is not the "Kohen" who heals. He only looks at the nega, plague. It is the metzora who activates the healing process. When he realizes the nadir of his sins, the harmful effect and the terrible damage that they have caused, he will repent and return to Hashem, Who will then heal him. The pasuk is teaching us that the healing emanates min hatzarua, from the afflicted metzora. He knows the damage he has caused. When he comes forth and owns up to his responsibility, Hashem will embrace him and accept his repentance. It must be min hatzarua.


And for the person being purified there shall be taken two birds. (14:4)

Daas Chachamim explains that the gematria, numerical equivalent, of tzipor, bird, is 376, the same as the word shalom, peace. This alludes to the fact that the slanderer must correct the discord he has created through his evil words. He must bring back the shalom that he has destroyed.


If he is poor, and his means are not sufficient. (14:21)

The Chafetz Chaim says that just as there is a difference between the sacrifice of a poor man and a wealthy man, so, too, is there a difference between one who is spiritually wealthy, learned and pious, and one who is spiritually poor. More is expected of he who is spiritually well-to-do.

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