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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male. (12:2)

In addressing the above pasuk, Chazal cite the pasuk in Tehillim 139:5, "Back and front You have fashioned me." Rabbi Yochanan says, "If a person is worthy, he inherits two worlds, this one and the next, as it is written, "Back and front, You have fashioned me." This Midrash begs elucidation. Are we to ignore the many pious Torah scholars who live in abject poverty? Are they to be excluded from inheriting two worlds? The Talmud is filled with narratives of our great Tannaim and Amoraim whose lack of material possessions did not impede their total devotion to Hashem. Indeed, it probably enhanced it! Were they "shorted out" of two worlds?

The Kaf Hachaim explains this concept with the following analogy: Three men once traveled to a distant land in search of wealth. They were told that in this country diamonds and rubies would be plentiful. They planned to amass as much wealth as possible and to return home with the fruits of their labor. There was, however, one drawback: the only way they could return home was on the same ship that had brought them there. The boat stayed in port only for a very short period of time, after which it transported its passengers back home.

They landed in port and were astounded by a land that literally flowed with precious jewels. Moreover, wherever they went they heard pleasant music. People were so taken in by this sweet, tempting music that they became inclined to seek out the pleasurable pastimes this country had to offer.

Our travelers were not much different. Material pleasure has that grabbing effect on a human being. The first traveler, apparently the wisest of the group, took immediate stock of the situation. He understood that he had come with a purpose - to gather jewels. He stayed focused on his goal. He would not waste his time getting involved in the pleasurable activities that beckoned. Realizing that the enjoyment would be fleeting and of no lasting value, he steered his course away from them and settled down to business.

The second traveler liked to have his cake and eat it. He was going to grasp both ends of the string, indulge in partying part-time, and collect jewels the remainder of the time. The third traveler was a weak person. Partying and pleasure may not have been his original purpose, but they so clouded his goal that he was immediately drawn into the thick of it, becoming a native when it came to revelry.

The day of departure arrived. The ship's horn gave its mighty blast, beckoning all of the passengers back for the return trip. The three travelers heard the call and came running. They all arrived together, but with varied results. The wise traveler, who had used his time propitiously, brought along sacks filled with the precious cargo which he had so diligently acquired during his short stay. The second traveler arriving with his bags was remorseful when, after seeing the first traveler's wares, he realized how much more he could have amassed had he not wasted so much of his time. The third traveler had a great time - until he arrived at boat-side and saw what his fellow travelers had been able to gather. He began to weep bitterly. How could he have been such a fool? How could he have been so foolish as to throw himself bodily into the pleasurable pastimes and ignore his future? What would he say to his family when he returned empty-handed?

The moral is obvious to those who are willing to face reality. We are placed on this world with a purpose: to study Torah and to perform mitzvos, acquiring thereby jewels far more precious than those of our story. In this world, Torah and mitzvos are a commodity which is easily and readily accessible. Giving tzedakah, assisting those in need, visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved are just some of the simple, satisfying jewels one can earn in this world. Once one has breathed his last and bid goodbye to this world, he can no longer gather these jewels. The souls of the departed long for the opportunity to perform mitzvos and greatly regret the lost opportunity.

Consequently, the wise person realizes his purpose on this world. He does not waste his time as the pleasure-seeker does. He who is not perceptive will try to enjoy what he can and simultaneously gather mitzvos. He will certainly not leave this world empty-handed, but, when he sees what he could have amassed, he will look back on his life with some regret. The last traveler who spends his life in total abandon, ignoring Torah and mitzvos, will regrettably have a rude awakening when he discovers the tremendous treasure that he let slip by.

This is the meaning of back and front - aft and fore. One must live with eyes in front of his head, always thinking of the future. He recognizes that the eternal world is his purpose for being placed on this earth. Hindsight is of great value if one takes it into consideration as he looks forward.

If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s'eis, or a sapachas…he shall be brought unto Aharon the Kohen. (13:2)

It must be terribly humiliating to be struck with a plague that clearly identifies one's sin. Perhaps the shame is part of the teshuvah, repentance, process. This idea is expressed by the Moshav Zekeinim who write that the Kohen will rebuke the sinner and reveal his shame to the point that he will now, as a result of the pain of embarrassment, repent and purify himself from sin. Shame is an indication that something is not right. It is a "gentle" communication that we have erred. If we correct our ways, we save ourselves from a more severe punishment.

At the same time, Hashem protects His devotees from unnecessary embarrassment. The following story, cited by Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, demonstrates how what might have been one gadol's shame became another rav's gentle message. It occurred at a Sheva Berachos, post-wedding feast, attended by many distinguished rabbanim, including the venerable Chazon Ish, zl. Suddenly, during the festivities, they heard a cacophony of joyous sound from the street. Apparently, a Sefer Torah which had recently been completed, was being brought into a nearby shul. Regrettably, the members of the shul did not maintain a similar level of religious observance and yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, as those assembled for the Sheva Berachos. The Chazon Ish decided that it was wrong not to join in giving honor to the Torah, even if the participants did not share his religious views. One of the distinguished rabbis, himself a great Torah scholar, felt that the Chazon Ish's decision was unacceptable, and they should not join the group. The Chazon Ish did not respond.

When the Chazon Ish returned with the guests, they continued the meal. When it came time to bench and recite the Sheva Berachos, the rav who had disputed the Chazon Ish's decision was given the honor of reciting the brachah of "asher yatzar es hoadam b'tzalmo," "Who has fashioned man in His image," the third of the Seven Blessings. Shockingly, to the surprise of all those assembled, when the rav recited the brachah, he erred. Instead, he recited the blessing, "asher yatzar es haodam b'chochmah," "Who has fashioned man with wisdom," the blessing made upon leaving the bathroom. A slight smirk crept upon the faces of the guests, since this was an error that some might consider funny. Unfortunately, it became funnier when the rav made the same mistake two more times! It "seemed" as if he just could not get it straight. Needless to say, this was embarrassing for the rav and thought provoking to those who witnessed what was a clear message: The Torah does not remain indebted to anyone. If it is slighted in any way, it will exact remuneration. This applies equally to kavod haTorah, the respect that should be accorded to those individuals who embody the true Torah ideal.

Questions & Answers

1) Why does the Torah repeat the mitzvah of Bris Milah in our parsha?

2) What are the three basic symptoms which, when occurring on tzaraas of the skin, render the metzora tamei?

3) How is it possible for a regular wool or linen garment not to be susceptible to tumah?

4) What specific pre-condition applies to tzaraas that, without it, the metzora cannot become tamei?


1. The Torah emphasizes that Milah must be performed on the eighth day of the infant's life. Chazal derive from here that the mitzvah of Milah transcends even Shabbos (Sanhedrin 59b).

2. The appearance of two white hairs in the affected area; the appearance of raw flesh in the affected area; the spreading of the original spot.

3. If a wool or linen garment has been dyed from its original color, it is no longer susceptible to tumah (Toras Kohanim).

4. The tumah of the metzora or any form of tzoraas occurs only when the Kohen pronounces it. Otherwise, there is no tumah.


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

The laws of tzaraas are replete with important lessons for the one who has the ability to see and is willing to look. Indeed, as is clearly stated by the Rishonim, the affliction that is known as tzaraas has absolutely nothing to do with the physical illness known as leprosy. Sforno is very adamant in emphasizing this point. He notes that the Torah only mentions three modalities of tzaraas: s'eeis, sapachas, and baheres, which are white in color and are not nearly as severe as the system-wide cancers which spread over the entire body and are red or black. These are not declared tamei, impure, by the Torah. Only the four whitish discolorations cited by the Torah are viewed as representing Hashem's rebuke for sinning. These four discolorations are considered by Chazal to be a form of atonement. The other cancers not mentioned in the Torah are physical illnesses and in no way represent rebuke or atonement.

Interestingly, Sforno posits that, strangely, the more potentially devastating the disease and the closer it comes to full-scale degeneration, the farther it is removed from the Torah! There is a profound message to be derived herein. Out and out evil, complete degeneration, full-scale spiritual collapse is not as dangerous as subtle spiritual descent, covert prurience, elusive evil veiled by a veneer of righteousness. We have less to fear from wanton malevolence than from a slow surreptitious infiltration of the pernicious. Society has more to fear from the evil which operates under a cloak of civility than from the overt terrorist. The quiet psychopath who shocks us with his violent revelation is far more dangerous than the blatant criminal. We have only to go back sixty years to the exponents of the Third Reich, those "paragons" of refinement and polished civility who created the concentration camps and crematoriums, to see the danger of "tumah" as opposed to outward "disease." Indeed, it is in those that portray themselves as human that we have come to see true inhumanity, true evil. This is the message of tzaraas.

A message is only effective, however, if one opens his eyes and listens intelligently to it. One who looks at the external, who views life superficially, gains nothing from these messages, as illustrated by a famous parable of the Dubno Maggid. It happened that a certain poor man, who we will refer to as Chaim, was once invited to dinner at the home of the wealthiest man in town. When he entered the massive mansion, Chaim could not believe his eyes. The place practically oozed wealth. From the magnificent paintings to the gorgeous furniture and stunning lights, the home looked like something out of a fairy tale. He was soon ushered into the dining room where everyone munched on the hors d'oevres. Finally, they were seated at an enormous, ornate table as the first course was about to be served. The rich man was seated at the head of the table in a large wooden chair, upholstered with the finest velvet and leather. As soon as the diners had finished their first course, the rich man took out a small copper bell from his pocket and shook it. Almost at once, waiters converged from various doors, removed the used plates and brought in the next course. Chaim was amazed at the power of this unique bell. One tinkle, and servants appear. This was incredible.

When they completed the second course, the ritual was repeated. The bell was tinkled, waiters appeared and more food was served. Chaim was simply astounded with this bell. He must get one. Soon, his material problems would be solved. The next day, Chaim scraped together his meager savings and bought a small bell. It was not a copper bell, because he was going to go all-out in his quest for material sustenance. He purchased a silver-plated bell with the hope that it would engender even greater wealth than he had just witnessed. "Our days of hunger are finally over," he declared to his family. "Come and you will see how we will now have whatever we want to eat." The family sat down at their small, broken-down table in great anticipation. Chaim sat at the head with his "trusted" little bell. He looked at his family. Raising the bell, he said, "Here we go." He then tinkled the bell with great determination and waited for the waiters to appear. Lo and behold - nothing happened. How could this be? He immediately shook the bell again - this time with a bit more force. Again - nothing. "I cannot understand," Chaim muttered angrily. "It worked for the rich man. Why does it not work for me?"

Broken-hearted and dejected, Chaim returned the bell to the store from which he had purchased it, complaining, "This bell is useless. I received no response when I rang it."

Now, we all know why the bell did not elicit any response. Chaim had no food and no waiters in his house to summon by means of the bell. Hence, the bell had no one to summon. The bell works after much preparation has been made. Without the preparation, the bell accomplishes nothing more than to make noise.

The Dubno Maggid explains that we act similarly to poor Chaim. He cites the mitzvah of Tzitzis as an example. The Torah tells us that when we look at our Tzitzis, we will be reminded of our obligation to perform all of Hashem's mitzvos. We recite this injunction in Shema Yisrael at least twice a day. Yet, does it leave an impression? Does it remind us to observe all of the mitzvos?

Regrettably, there are many who look at a pair of Tzitzis and are reminded of nothing. They see what most people see - strands of wool! It is only the learned, the prepared, who understand the essence of mitzvos and their relationship to Tzitzis, who can appreciate the "view" of Tzitzis. To gaze at Tzitzis without any preparation is not much different than ringing a bell without prior arrangement for someone to respond. Similarly, the message being conveyed to the metzora has meaning only if the metzora is prepared to see and to listen.

Questions & Answers

1) What three items are used for dipping into and sprinkling the birds' blood on the Mizbayach?

2. Why does a metzora bring two birds for his atonement?

3. Was tzaraas ha'bayis a blessing in disguise?

4. Does tzaraas ha'bayis apply outside of Eretz Yisrael? Does this same halachah apply to garments?


1. Together with the live bird, the metzora brings cedar-wood, red-dyed thread, and moss which are taken to be dipped into the dead bird's blood and then sprinkled on the Mizbayach. Cedarwood is the tallest of trees, whole moss, the lowest of vegetation and the red-dyed wool, which is dyed by a lowly worm. Together, they remind the metzora that his sin, loshon hora, is the result of arrogance - reflected by the cedar. The other two items remind him of where he should be - lowly as moss and a worm (Rashi citing Midrash Tanchuma).

2. The chirping and chattering of the two birds remind the metzora of the root of his sin - lashon hora, evil speech (Arachin 16b).

3. The Canaanim hid treasures in the walls of the house. When the walls were demolished because of the plague, the treasures were revealed. This might be a blessing, but according to Chazal in Arachin 16A, tzaraas was visited on the home of one who feigned poverty, but was really wealthy. When he was compelled to remove everything from his house, his true possessions were revealed to all.

4. Tzaraas ha'bayis only applies in Eretz Yisrael. According to the Ramban, the same rule applies to tzaraas of garments.

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