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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. (14:2)

The return of the metzora from a period of solitary confinement which was due to his ritual impurity is called taharah, purification. His affliction is regarded as a spiritual malady which incurs tumah, ritual contamination. He is not physically ill; he is a spiritually flawed. Tzaraas is a physical manifestation of this spiritual failing. It is a physical syndrome that calls attention to a spiritual infirmity that is wreaking havoc with the individual's spiritual dimension. The Sefer HaChinuch is extremely clear in his explanation of the disease we call tzaraas. He feels that the disease indicates Hashem's Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence, focusing on each individual. This disease is spawned by sin, so that the period of isolation serves as a time for self-reflection and self-searching analysis which will ultimately lead to change. The Sefer HaChinuch would have us surmise that the severity and intensity of the sin, the level of the moral/spiritual lapse, determine the degree of tzaraas. The disease's malignancy should coincide with the egregious nature of the individual's sinful behavior.

Sforno agrees in principle that tzaraas is not a medical/physical condition but rather, a manifestation of a spiritual malady. He does say, however, that tzaraas affecting the entire body, a system-wide malignancy, either represents full-scale degeneracy or a purely medical condition. It has no connection whatsoever to the tumah inherent in tzaraas. Accordingly, the more devastating the disease, the closer it gets to becoming a full-scale malady and the less it is perceived as relating to tumah. This teaches us that evil is a danger in the decay of a system, not in its total collapse. Tumah is dangerous when the evil is subtle, when it lies beneath a veneer of respectability. Overt and wanton evil scares us much less. We know what it is, and, hence, we understand the need to distance ourselves from it. It is the hard-to-detect miscreancy that we must fear, because by the time we acknowledge it, we have already become its victim.

In his sefer, Ohr HaMeir to Megillas Esther, Horav Zev Wolf, zl, m'Zitomir, cites the Baal Shem Tov, zl, who takes this approach in shedding light on the Purim story. Essentially, the Baal Shem teaches that in Kabbalah the term for evil is klipah, shell/husk. Naked, raw evil is unable to exist, let alone maintain the power to attract people to it. They see right through it all, and they distance themselves from it. In order for evil to exist and to gain entry into the minds of the unknowing masses, it must be covert, packaged under a guise of pleasantry, idealism, or even a mitzvah, all to disguise it so that it eludes recognition of what it truly is.

The most evil despots throughout history have concealed their heinous acts under a veil of respectability: Hitler and Stalin were curing society of its parasites; the Arab murderers are freedom fighters, instead of terrorists; the inquisitors were Christian zealots; and the list goes on. The most evil deeds in history have been embraced by millions as idealistic sanctions, with brutal massacres of entire peoples presented as ethnic cleansing and humane programs for the betterment of society as a whole.

While this holds true for collective evil, it applies equally to the evil which we commit individually in our personal lives. We either do not have the gall or the desire to perform "open and shut," blatant evil. Rather, we look for ways, either by design or by impulse, to quiet our guilty consciences, to package our evil, destructive and immoral desires, positing them to be necessities for living. First, we delude ourselves into believing that we are unhappy. Next, we convince ourselves that the glittery overlay of happiness and comfort presented by the evil opportunities represents no wrong. In fact, with a little convincing, we might even begin to accept that this is the correct thing to do. Before we realize what is happening, we are trapped. Now, if every inappropriate desire that we have would present itself without its fa?ade, if we would see it clearly, we would immediately dismiss it.

Our daily challenge in life is to see through the obscure, delve past the veneer, disregard the packaging and see the substance for what it really is. Before we act, we must ask ourselves: Is this right? Is this worth it? Is there value to what we are about to do, or is it vacuous and empty, nothing more than flippant, base desire? A Torah Jew always seeks the intrinsic, underlying aspect of life, the true essence of things. He understands that just as a book should not be judged by its cover, so should we not be misled by external appearances.

We fell for the ruse in Germany, when many fell over backwards to be part of the German culture, their way of life, and, ultimately, their people. The anathema of intermarriage was ameliorated in Western Europe, as were those seeking self-gratification and the respect of the "cultured" German. They quickly ignored the Shulchan Aruch that had been our mainstay for a millennia, exchanging it for a culture that had a glistening veneer. Beneath its fa?ade, however, was nothing more than a fertile breeding ground for the monsters that it spawned. The "cultured" German, who was supposedly our friend, was actually concealing a cruel monster, seething with evil beneath a false semblance of respectability.

From a mussar/ethical perspective, we note that the tzaraas did not suddenly appear; rather, it was a gradual process: one bad word; one bit of arrogance; one statement of lashon hora. Like a certain dread disease, it is only one cell among myriads that deviates and creates a situation in which the once-healthy person is soon at death's door. Tzaraas is a testament to the dangers of deviation. It neither takes much, nor does one have to turn away very far; the slightest turn can begin the process of decay. This is the extent to which tumah plays a role. It only needs a foothold.

This shall be the law of the Metzora… He shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

Like all bad things, lashon hora has to begin somewhere. People speak ill of others because they have a problem accepting that other people are different in one way or another. The Maharal posits that one aspect of lashon hora stems from the fact that people refuse to accept the idea that different people have differing roles. Let us face it: a Yisrael cannot serve as a Kohen; an am ha'aretz, uneducated person, cannot be a rosh yeshivah. Thus, when Yisrael notices the Kohen performing the service, pangs of jealousy begin to overwhelm him, and the need to "talk" surfaces.

The Maharal explains that the Kohen reinforces the concept that people have different roles within Judaism. We do not believe that everyone is equal. Hashem determines different roles for different people. Likewise, the Levi has his unique station in life. This position belongs only to him. A similar dichotomy applies to the different roles of men and women in Jewish law. The egalitarian notion is one that has been spawned by modern-day secularists. They seek to distort Torah Judaism as a result of a desire to acquiesce to the modern secularist society that has relegated Torah to antiquity, as a symbol of an archaic, not-in-tune-with-the-times system of jurisprudence. There are roles for men and for women, as well as roles for the Kohen, Levi and Yisrael. Our intolerance for the reality that different people have different roles in life generates the urge to speak lashon hora.

A similar idea applies to personalities. Some people find it difficult to accept the fact that others simply do not have the same personality as they do. If I do things a certain way, I expect others to act similarly. For example, one person is very caring and reaches out to all types of people from various backgrounds and persuasions. His friend does not necessarily have such a strong inclination for outreach. All of a sudden, the individual whose attitude to the first person's "super" outreach is lukewarm is no longer an accepting , caring individual. It happens all of the time. Since "he" or "she" do not possess the same feelings about something as I do, it gives me license to speak lashon hora.

The Maharal explains that it is specifically for this reason that the Me'il, the Priestly Robe, was the vestment that was mechaper, atoned, for the sin of lashon hora. The Me'il was made of techeilas, which is blue. Chazal tell us that the blue color was to remind us of the sea, which, in turn, should remind us of the sky, which brings to mind the Kisei HaKavod, Throne of Glory. Seeing techeilas stimulates a domino effect that reminds one of Hashem. This encourages the individual to perform mitzvos.

This is the connection to lashon hora. As mentioned earlier, lashon hora is expressed by the mouth, but spawned by the mind. The foolish notions that go through our mind, the jealousy, inferiority, and arrogance impose themselves on us, creating a climate rife for speaking lashon hora. Lashon hora is all about how we think, how we perceive an individual or a situation. We can think negatively, and we can think positively. We can see blemishes, flaws and inconsistencies, or we can see good qualities, good ethical character traits and reasons for an individual's indifference to a project about which we are so excited. It is all in the mind and how one trains his mind to think, to perceive, to analyze. The people who speak lashon hora either have trained their mind to think negatively or simply do not care to think positively. This by no means suggests that what we view as egregious is not. Certain evil people do bad things. It is just that we should not judge people according to appearances. If we look at the positive, we can hope that Hashem will do the same when He judges us.

This may be why Chazal emphasize the importance of having an ayin tova, literally, a "good eye." In his commentary to Pirkei Avos, Rav Ovadiah Bartenura explains that one who possesses an ayin tova is content with what he has and does not demand additional, unessential possessions. He does not envy his fellow who has more than he does. The person with an ayin tova does not feel diminished by his friend's surplus. Thus, he feels no need to denigrate him. A real mentch is even happy for his friend. Avraham Avinu had the first ayin tova. In fact, it was one of his distinguishing characteristics. This is why he succeeded in his outreach endeavors. He really cared for his students. His work was l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven - not simply to glorify himself. Last, we quote from the famous Rebbe Elimelech, zl, of Lizhensk, who would pray "that all of us see the merits of our fellows and not their shortcomings." The very fact that he would issue this prayer indicates that the capacity for judging people in the proper light is something that does not come naturally. We must pray for it. Recognizing this struggle is half the battle.

And cedarwood, crimson thread and hyssop. (14:4)

The crimson thread is dyed with a pigment made from a type of lowly creature, either insect or related to the worm family. The hyssop is a lowly bush. Together, they symbolize the idea of humility. The individual who allows himself to speak degradingly of others feels that he is better than they are. His arrogance is cured by the tzaraas, spiritual leprosy, from which he has now been healed. His newly-found humility is symbolized by the crimson thread and hyssop. The metzora's lack of humility has catalyzed his present situation. His lack of respect for people deprived him of continuing to be a member of society. As a metzora, he was isolated from people, so that he would have time to introspect his ways. As an outcast, he had the opportunity to learn the value of friendship, as well as how one who does not have friends looks and feels. Now, as he returns to society, he has a deeper understanding and appreciation of human interaction, friendship and relationships.

His educational process, however, does not end with his isolation. Now, he has to focus on the cause of his sin, his arrogance which led him to believe that he was better than everyone else. His earlier sense of contempt for people resulted from a lack of humility. We speak disparagingly of others, because we have lost sight of the value of people, especially those who are the subject of our derogatory remarks. Humility is the correct manner in which to live, because it reinforces the notion that all people have value, all people are special in one way or another. It is not just about "me"; it is about "us."

Humility was the hallmark of many of our gedolim, Torah giants. The greater their status in Torah erudition, the more profound their sense of humility. Sure, they knew who they were. Specifically due to their encyclopedic Torah knowledge and their closeness with Hashem, they were that much more aware of what was expected of them. That is what made them humble.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates an interesting story concerning the Brisker Rav, zl, which underscores his incredible humility. Horav Yechiel Michel Feinstein, zl, son-in-law of the Brisker Rav, recalled his amazement that, upon walking in Brisk with his revered father-in-law, every Jew in whose proximity they came would halt what he was doing and stand up for the Rav. Even the wagon-drivers would stand up in their coaches/wagons as a display of respect. He was the Rav, and they revered him.

Rav Michel was reasonably impressed with this display of kavod haTorah, respect for the Torah. After all, the simplest Jew in town acknowledged the greatness of their beloved Rav. This was no small thing in his eyes, and he conveyed his feelings to his father-in-law.

The Brisker Rav replied: "They are not standing up for me. They still remember the image of my saintly father (Horav Chaim Brisker, zl). Thus, they are standing up for me, but really it is my father for whom they rise."

These remarks unquestionably reflect the Brisker Rav's total self-abnegation, his extraordinary humility, to the point that he actually believed that it was for his father for whom they were standing, not for him.

I think we can add to this. This is undoubtedly a wonderful and meaningful message. The Brisker Rav never believed that they were standing up for him. It was his father for whom they were standing. I think we might derive another powerful lesson from here concerning the awesome respect one should show to his parents. Although Rav Chaim was no longer alive, his son continued to manifest deep respect for him.

In order to understand this concept, it is essential that we are cognizant of the meaning of Kabeid es avicha v'es imecha, "Honor your father and your mother." Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, explains the word kabeid as being related to kaved, heavy/weight. Thus, kavod, honor, is the expression of the spiritual and moral worth of an individual. Kavod is the spiritual and moral "weight" of a person. Thus, kabeid means "demonstrating your estimation of the value of." To honor parents is to show in our every endeavor, in our whole behavior, how thoroughly permeated we are with our parents' great significance. The very fact that Hashem selected them as His partners in our creation speaks volumes about their value.

Taking this idea further, to give kavod is to lend "weight" to our parents, to sort of make them "heavier," more important, to hold them in greater esteem. Everything that they do has that much more significance in our eyes. Therefore, when the Brisker Rav attributed the respect he received to his father, he was actually carrying out the mitzvah of honoring one's parents to the degree that one should venerate them and attribute whatever distinction that he can to them. He should "add weight" to their names.

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

The Baal HaTurim notes that the phrase nireh li, "appeared to me," is found in only one other place in Tanach. In Yirmiyah 31:2, Klal Yisrael responds to Hashem, Meirachok Hashem nireh li, "From the distant past, Hashem appeared to me." Radak explains that when Hashem began His dialogue by recalling the nation's early days, Klal Yisrael interjected, "You have found favor with us in the past, but now You have removed Yourself from our presence." Alternatively, this clause is part of the Navi's prophecy, which emphasizes Hashem's love for Klal Yisrael in the past. This love will continue throughout the present and into the future, despite the numerous iniquities of the nation in the course of the years.

The Baal HaTurim explains the correlation of the two pesukim as teaching us a lesson. Regardless of one's level of erudition, he should not say nega nireh li, "an affliction appeared to me." Rather, he should say k'nega, "something like an affliction." One should not decide the validity of an affliction himself. He should make the decision meirachok, "from afar," and rely on the Kohen's determination.

Horav Aharon Levin, zl, popularly known as the Raisha Rav, suggests a profound lesson to be derived from the correlation of these two pesukim. If a person notices what appears to be a nega, affliction, in his house; if he sees his children beginning to deviate from the Torah way of life, he should acknowledge that meirachok Hashem nireh li, "Hashem appears distant to me" - too. The father should take to heart and realize that the "apple" often does not fall far from the tree. It has to start someplace. When children begin to present a dim view of a life of adherence to Torah, the parents should begin to introspect, reflecting on their own level of commitment. We do not realize how powerful and far-reaching the influence the home is. Even the most subtle changes in a father and mother's attitude, can -- and will-- affect their children. This is something that one should bear in mind at all times. Your children are watching and observing your every move. Be careful that it does not come back to haunt you one day.

In his Sefer Mishmar HaLeviim, Horav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger, relates two stories, about two fathers, about the two letters they wrote, and the ensuing impact on their sons' lives. Well, it was not only the letters, but what these letters indicated about each father's values, what he considered important, and the message it conveyed to his son.

Rav Shulsinger heard the first episode from the Steipler Rav, zl. In 1914, shortly prior to World War I, the Steipler, then still a yeshivah student, had occasion to spend some time in a small village. During his visit, he encountered a man whose son studied in the yeshivah with the Steipler. The man asked the Steipler if he would mind taking along a letter for his son upon his return trip to the yeshivah. The Steipler acquiesced gladly. The man sat down, penned the letter, sealed it in an envelope and gave it to the Steipler, who planned on leaving the very next day. Regrettably, World War I broke out and travel became hazardous. The letter remained in the Steipler's care for the next eight years!

The war was finally over, and life returned to normal. Eight years after the Steipler had the conversation with the man, he met his son. True to form, the Steipler still had with him the letter and was only too happy to have finally carried out his mission. Upon hearing that the Steipler had a letter from his father, the young man brushed away tears and remarked, "It is the last thing I will receive from my father, as he has already passed away from this world."

With trembling hands, the young man opened the envelope, removed the letter and began to read. For some reason, he asked to share the contents of the letter with the Steipler. It was a simple letter, no profundities, just the usual. The father wrote, "How are you? I hope that you are well and studying to the best of your abilities, looking forward to seeing you in the near future. One favor, please. You know that a good schmaltz herring is not to be found in our tiny village. Could you possibly bring home a few herrings? It would mean so much to me."

This was the gist of his father's letter - which, essentially, became more of a last will and testament. He hoped his son would succeed - and, please, do not forget the herring. His father cared about his learning, but he also cared about his herring.

Letter number two surfaced, compliments of Horav Aizik Sher, zl, who, prior to becoming Rosh Yehivah of Slabodka, was Rosh Yeshivah in Halusk. It was a small town with a small yeshivah, but the level of learning and intensity of the students was outstanding. The young men were very diligent, spending every waking moment engrossed in the study of Torah. They were completely divorced from materialism and its demands. One student in the yeshivah would frequently receive a letter from his father. These letters were lessons in life, learning and ethical character refinement.

While every letter had a different message, one idea was reiterated in each letter. The father would write, "My dear son. In any area of life's endeavor, when a question arises concerning which path to take, which avenue to pursue, always keep one thing in mind: make believe that 'today' is the last day of your life, and that this is the last decision you will ever make. For instance, if you have a question, "should I go to the bais hamedrash, or somewhere else? While the "somewhere else" may be important, you must ask yourself: "is this where I want to spend the last day of my life?" The letter was signed Nosson Tzvi and sent to his son, Leizer Yudil. Yes, the letter writer was none other than Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl, the Alter of Slabodka, rebbe to the greatest Roshei Yeshivah in the Torah world, who was addressing his son, Horav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, zl, the future Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah.

Two letters: one emphasizes herring, while the other focuses on self-improvement. The consequences are staggering. I do want to add something. We cannot forget that the father who was concerned with his schmaltz herring was still an individual who had the foresight to send his son to yeshivah. This was not a common practice in those days. The father was probably an unschooled individual, but he was aware that Torah reigns supreme and that he was obligated to provide his son with a Torah education - regardless of the sacrifice. Indeed, I think this individual deserves tremendous credit for going against his personal proclivities. This is quite unlike those who are not only themselves into "herring", but they force-feed it to their children! It is difficult for them to accept a son or daughter whose devotion to Torah triumphs over their personal attachment to a materialistic way of life. Indeed, that villager should be praised for having the foresight, fortitude and resolution to send his son to yeshivah.

Va'ani Tefillah

Natisa yemincha tivla'eimo aretz. You stretched out Your right hand - the earth swallowed them.

Rashi cites Chazal who interpret this pasuk as an indication that the Egyptians merited burial. Rashi attributes this "privilege" to their earlier declaration of Hashem Hu ha'tzaddik, "Hashem, He is the righteous one." This concession was their reaction to the devastation wrought by makkas barad, the plague of hail. Concerning the pasuk in Bereishis 9:23, "And Shem and Yefes took," Rashi notes the use of the singular va'yikach, "and he took," as opposed to vayikchu, "and they took." He explains that while both Shem and Yafes were involved in covering Noach, it was Shem who was proactive. Thus, it is written in the singular. Their rewards were commensurately different, with Shem's descendents meriting the mitzvah of Tzitzis, the Tallis serving as a covering for the body. Yafes' body was also "covered" in that he merited burial. One who performs a mitzvah intrinsically, responding to an internal desire, will act proactively, while one who acts out of need, habit, complacence, extrinsic factors, will not give it his "all."

The Avnei Nezer, zl, elaborates on this theme. Yafes had no intrinsic desire to cover his father. Therefore, his reward was an external covering for his body - burial. Shem acted proactively out of an internal desire to cover his father. He was thus blessed with a mitzvah that provides eternal reward. The Egyptian's declaration, "Hashem is the righteous one," was not the result of a profound acknowledgement of Hashem's greatness. It was a constrained reaction to a plague that had devastated them. They did, however, praise Hashem, and for that they were rewarded with burial - an external reward commensurate with their declaration.

In memory of our beloved parents
Rabbi Dr. Avrohom Yitzchok Wolf
Rebbetzin Anna Moses

Sruly and Chaya Wolf and Family
Ari and Rivky Wolf and Family

Abba and Sarah Spero and Family
Pesach and Esther Ostroy and Family
Sruly and Chaya Wolf and Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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