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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then the Kohen shall quarantine the affliction for a seven-day period. (13:4)

Rashi explains that the afflicted person is quarantined, he must remain in a room for an entire week. The Torah's use of the word nega, affliction, as opposed to ha'ish asher bo ha'nega, "the man who is afflicted," seems out of place. Is the Kohen secluding the individual or the affliction?

Indeed, the Tur and Rosh contend that the person is not quarantined. Rather, the Kohen draws a line around the suspect patch of skin, thereby segregating it in such a manner that he will be able to quickly discern whether or not it becomes larger during the seven-day period.

Tiferes Avos renders this pasuk homiletically. He explains that the Kohen is enjoined to view the affliction, not the individual who is afflicted, to see if he is friend or foe. If the nega manifests signs of tumah, spiritual contamination, it is tamei. If it does not, then the individual is tahor, ritually clean. All too often, in rendering a decision the Kohen gets carried away with the individual, which impairs his clarity of mind. The Torah, therefore, instructs to separate the infliction from the individual.

This idea applies equally to anyone who is called upon to adjudicate a halachic decision. He should not concern himself with the litigants that stand before him, but only with the halachah that has to be interpreted correctly, in an unbiased manner. Indeed, the Maharam Shick, zl, would don a Tallis and cover his eyes, as he pulled it over his head in preparation for a din Torah. He refused to gaze at - or address - the litigants by name. He would refer to them as Reuven and Shimon. Even when he rendered his decision, he would do so with anonymity, stating that the halachah concurs with Reuven or Shimon. This process ensured equal treatment of all parties involved.

If a tzaraas affliction will be in a person, he shall be brought to the Kohen. (13:9)

Lashon hora, evil speech, is a general term which is given to any form of slanderous speech, regardless of its veracity. In truth, any expression which conveys a negative connotation about an individual falls under the purview of lashon hora, despite the innocuous intention of the speaker. In other words, one does not have to be intent upon slandering the subject of his conversation. If he speaks negatively of him, it is considered lashon hora. For the most part, the words that emerge from our mouths are not meant to hurt, to slander, to defame. They are usually the result of our own envy, anger, or some other petty emotion. If we would ever realize the everlasting impression and enduring hurt that lashon hora creates, this alone would be, for some, the greatest deterrent.

The following story, cited by Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, emphasizes this idea. A distinguished rebbetzin in Yerushalayim had occasion to take the bus. She located a seat in front of two young ladies. These two students were engrossed in a conversation concerning one of their peers, who had just become engaged the previous night. In a manner unbecoming such two intelligent and clearly observant women, they proceeded to dissect the other girl in an inappropriate fashion. By the time they had completed their "surgery" of this girl, the only conclusion that remained was their expression of pity for the "unfortunate" chassan.

This rebbetzin was sitting directly in front of these girls, and she could not help but overhear their negative comments. She decided that she would teach them a lesson. She turned around towards them and said, "I could not help but listen to your conversation. I cannot thank you enough for your frank description of this girl. You have truly spared me from any future headache. You see, I am the mother of the chassan to whom your "friend" is engaged. When I return home, I am going to have a serious talk with my son and insist that he call off the engagement. This is not the type of girl I want my son to marry."

The girls were shocked. They certainly had no intention of harming the young lady in question. Surely, they did not want to ruin her chances of finding a suitable mate. They were probably just a bit envious of her, and envy invariably leads to slander and worse. What could they do to dissuade the woman, to undo the harm they had caused? "Please, you have it all wrong," they pleaded. "We are really very good friends with your kallah, and she is a lovely girl. It is just that we got a bit carried away. After all, we would also like to be engaged."

"No, no, you have said enough," the 'mother' responded. "I wish I would have met you earlier. You surely would have shared with me all of these nuggets of negativity about the kallah's character. It would have spared me the aggravation related to what I am now about to do."

"Please, do not break the shidduch!" the girls entreated. "We were wrong. As a result of our envy, we said things that we should not have said. There are things that not only cannot be confirmed, but are not even true." They cried and pleaded with the woman to listen to them and not stand in the way of the forthcoming marriage. The rebbetzin left the bus at her designated stop, bidding the girls a good day, saying that she would give the matter further thought.

In this situation, the girls learned their lesson. They came to realize the devastating consequences of lashon hora. Luckily, the woman who heard them was a righteous and decent human being who did not want to see a young kallah hurt. She did want, however, to teach these two girls the tragic effects of lashon hora.

He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (13:46)

Chazal teach us that the individual who separates between man and his fellow man with his slanderous speech is to be isolated from people, so that he will experience the loneliness that he caused. Loneliness is a terrible place to live. One who disrupts relationships between people should be made to suffer the experience of loneliness. What about someone who promotes harmony? Does he accomplish anything? Does he catalyze any change in the spiritual cosmos that effect us?

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites a compelling Torah thought from the Sifsei Tzaddik that should make us all stop and think. We all know that during Klal Yisrael's sojourn in the wilderness, the nascent Jewish nation was protected from any physical harm from nature or the elements by Hashem Who sent His Ananei Hakavod, Pillars of Cloud. For the duration of their journey, the Clouds created a utopian physical environment, in which nothing and no one could harm the Jewish people. How can we create this unique sheltering environment, this "bubble" that envelops us, protecting us from all harm?

The Sifsei Tzaddik explains that the breath that emerges from the mouths of two people who live in harmony with each other blends together in the air. Aharon HaKohen was known for his love of all Jews, as well as his overwhelming desire to promote unity and peace among his fellow men. His loving personality left a powerful imprimatur upon the people, to the point that they all sought to become like him. They strived to emulate his character and virtue. The spiritual mist that emanated from the mouths of six hundred thousand Jews who were united in fellowship, whose respect and love for one another was unparalleled, created the Ananei haKavod in Aharon's merit. Hashem "created" the Pillars of Cloud out of the breath of the Jews. The love they manifest for one another produced this insulating environment.

If we stop to think about this statement and go as far as to attempt to implement it in our own community, in our own environment, chances are that we might be able to catalyze a "cloud" that might be the answer to all of the suffering that we endure. It is definitely worth a try.


On the day of his purification, he shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

The metzora was brought to the outskirts of the camp where the Kohen would come out and meet him. Why does the Kohen have to come out to the metzora? The Sifsei Kohen explains that there is a powerful lesson to be derived from the concept. The metzora was sent out of all three camps. He was humiliated and quarantined, he was left to live in seclusion. Yet, there is a limit even to punishment. It is not the Torah's objective to push the metzora away completely. He sinned; he must be taught a lesson, a lesson from which he will, hopefully, have learned. Then, he has to be brought back with distinction. The Kohen is to go out to greet him. Too much punishment can be irrevocable. That is not the Torah's goal. We punish, but, at the same time, we are considerate of the sinner's dignity. He is to be punished - not destroyed.

When Miriam HaNeviah was punished for speaking against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu, she was afflicted for seven days with tzaraas. Yet, during this entire time, Klal Yisrael respectfully waited for her to be purified before they continued with their travels. Punishment has its place, as does respect.

When there was a lengthy famine in which many perished as a consequence for the killing of the Kohanim in Nov and the Givonim, David Hamelech asked of the Urim V'Tumim why this terrible destruction was being wrought on the people. The reply that he received was: "It is for Shaul and for the House of Blood, for his having killed the Givonim" (Shmuel 11, 21:1). Shaul's family is described as the House of Blood, and they incurred Hashem's wrath for the chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name, which they caused when they killed the Kohanim in Nov and a number of Givonim, who were woodchoppers and water drawers in the city. The rest were driven out. Many were killed in the process. Yet, despite the punishment that Shaul incurred, Klal Yisrael was still critiqued for not eulogizing him appropriately.

We glean from here the overriding importance of not getting carried away when we must rebuke, when we rightfully get angry, when we are compelled to punish. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a human being who currently might require a form of castigation, but does not deserve total and equivocal censure.

Furthermore, the Sifsei Kohen adds that the Kohen's "going out" to the metzora alludes to the metzora's reason for his affliction and the lesson he is to derive from the punishment. Tzaraas is, for the most part, the result of arrogance. One thinks he is better than someone else. Therefore, he has license to speak about him in any manner that he deems appropriate. The Kohen, who represents the zenith in spiritual achievement, goes out of all three camps to meet the metzora who has disgraced himself through his slanderous tongue. The lesson is clear: even the greatest, most dignified man may not act pompously towards an individual of even the lowest spiritual stature. Arrogance is reprehensible, causing one who "is" to become one who "is not."

And for the person being purified there shall be taken 1000 live, clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop. (14:4).

Atonement for the sin that led to the punishment of tzaraas can only occur once the sinner has purged himself of the character deficiencies that originally catalyzed this sin. Otherwise, his sinful behavior will come back to haunt him time and time again. Tzaraas is the result of a haughty nature, unabashed arrogance against people. The baal gaavah, arrogant person, looks down on others contemptuously. He slanders and defames reputations without feeling, because he views himself as being better and higher than everyone else. Veritably, he is much lower than they are; his sins reflect a serious character deficiency and a dangerous sense of insecurity. This person is a dangerous menace to society. It is only after he delves into - and learns the meaning of - humility that he will cure himself of his arrogance. This is symbolized by the cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop. The cedar grows tall and imposing, symbolizing haughtiness. The crimson thread is dyed with a pigment made from a lowly creature; and the hyssop, a lowly bush, also symbolizes humility.

Why is it necessary to have two allusions to humility? One should have been sufficient, especially since the hyssop is "taller" than the lowly wormlike creature from which the crimson dye is made. The Steipler Rav, zl, explains the reason for including both symbolisms. He cites the Rambam in Hilchos De'os, who distinguishes between the individuals manifesting two extreme character traits: the one who is very pompous and haughty; and the one who keeps himself extremely low. These two extremes are self-destructive. The Rambam, therefore, suggests that the most appropriate approach is to maintain the "mean of virtue": not to gravitate to either extreme. This is the path of life chosen by the chacham, wise and astute man. One who is especially meticulous will remove himself from any vestige of haughtiness, trying to be as humble as humanly possible. Such a person is referred to as a chasid, pious person.

The Lechem Mishnah questions the Rambam's statement. The Rambam himself writes elsewhere that the "mean of virtue" is not the path of choice with regard to the middah, character trait, of gaavah, haughtiness. Indeed, the Rambam demands that one distance himself as far as possible from arrogant behavior in order to maintain a sense of humility to the extent possible. Moshe Rabbeinu was anav meod, very humble. Why should the individual who takes the "middle road" be considered to be a chacham?

The Lechem Mishnah explains that the Rambam does not mean that one should go to an extreme and denigrate himself, to sit lower than everybody else, to dress in attire that is demeaning and humiliating. Rather, the Rambam suggests that one who is haughty, who has fallen victim to the disease of arrogance, should go to the other extreme until he is able to maintain a central balance. This is the wise man: He pulls to the opposite direction and then swings back to the middle. The chassid, on the other hand, bends very slowly and carefully towards the opposite side, so that he is never in the middle road - but he also never approaches the extreme.

This, explains the Steipler, is what the Torah means by presenting two symbolisms. He who has become haughty like the cedar tree should lower himself like the worm, which is the source of the crimson dyed wool. Then, he should swing back to the middle road, characterized by the hyssop. He fluctuates from one extreme to the other, and ultimately, ends up in the middle.

The Chazon Ish exemplified gadlus ba'Torah, eminence in Torah, at its zenith. He was an individual who was immersed completely in the sea of Torah. Yet, he was able to render halachic decisions concerning all facets of life, both spiritual and secular. Despite his preeminence as a Torah scholar without peer, he was known for his humility, never seeking fame nor honor for himself. He once explained the meaning of true humility: "People are mistaken in thinking that humility means to think of oneself as an ignorant boor, even when this is not the case. Humility means that one is able to recognize his true worth. One who is a gadol ba'Torah knows this and conducts himself in a manner commensurate with his true erudition and status. He may not seek honor, however, due to his position, since this is his purpose in life."

Horav Shmuel Vosner, Shlita, related an incident which epitomized the Chazon Ish's humility. It was Erev Rosh Hashanah of a post-Shemittah year, when it is necessary for a creditor to sign a Prozbul, a halachic document facilitating the collection of all debts, that would otherwise be lost due to the Shemittah laws. The Chazon Ish appeared at Rav Vosner's door and said simply, "I am a resident of the Zichron Meir neighborhood; his honor is the Rav. I have, therefore, come to write a Prozbul." This was the gadol hador speaking!

Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, once commented, "If someone would notify me that the Chazon Ish was Moshiach, I would believe it!" When this statement was repeated to the Chazon Ish, he remarked, "Ah… See how badly Rav Isser Zalman wants Moshiach to come."

In his commentary to Bamidbar 12:3, Rashi, defines Moshe Rabbeinu's unprecedented level of humility in that "to be humble is to be meek and tolerant." In his commentary to Pirkei Avos, Rabbeinu Yonah writes that a tolerant person is "one who distances himself from anger and responds in a soft tone. Even when he is wronged, he tolerates it without allowing a bitter word to escape his mouth." Concerning harboring ill will, the Chazon Ish once remarked "Such merchandise is not found in my store." Indeed, once an overzealous student was unusually brazen in attempting to get the Chazon Ish's attention concerning a dvar Torah he wanted to share with him. After awhile, he realized that the Chazon Ish was not listening. He assumed that his insolence towards the gadol hador played a role in this negative response. The next day, he waited outside the shul where the Chazon Ish davened, so that he could ask his forgiveness. This time the Chazon Ish responded, "There is one thing for which you have to ask forgiveness - for suspecting me of harboring ill will against you. I do not know what it means to bear a grudge.

"As to why I did not respond to your questions yesterday: you came to me in the evening, after an unusually taxing day. My strength is not what it used to be. While your questions were excellent, responding to them required deep concentration, something which was beyond me at that point. Thus, for fear of being drawn into a conversation that would endanger my health, I kept quiet."

Va'ani Tefillah

Ki rega b'apo chaim birtzono. For His anger endures but a moment; life results from His favor. In the Yerushalmi Berachos 2, Chazal say: The owner of the fig tree knows when his figs are ripe and ready to be picked. Likewise, Hashem knows when a tzaddik's, righteous person's, time is completed. When that time arrives, the tzaddik is removed from the world. A man once approached the Brisker Rav, zl, and said, "Rebbe, I have a fantastic idea how to increase one's longevity. Chazal teach us that when one completes his purpose on This World, he is called back. If that is the case, then one should simply not complete his purpose. If one does not pass the course, he does not graduate, and he will not have to leave the school!" The Brisker Rav replied, "If a person does not fulfill his purpose, if he does not fulfill the ratzon, will of Hashem, he is not truly living. In any event, he is not alive. He either dies or the life he has lived is not considered living." This is the meaning of chaim birtzono: it is called "life" only when it is birtzono, in fulfillment of His Will.

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