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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

Many people travel the road of life, remaining clueless about what is happening around them. We do not stop to think, to ask ourselves: What just happened? Why did it occur? What does it have to do with me? If nothing actually "bad" happens to us, we continue in our life with business as usual. Isha ki sazria - v'yalda zachar. We take so many things for granted. Chazal quote the pasuk in Tehillim 139:5, Achor vakedem tzartani, "Back and front, You have formed me." This pasuk refers to the initial creation of man as an androgynous being, as male and female in one body. Vayedabeir Moshe, quoted by Horav Shlomo Levinstein, Shlita, suggests a practical explanation.

The Jewish calendar is different from the secular calendar in that our day begins with the previous night, unlike theirs in which the night is the end of the previous day. Vayedabeir Moshe quotes the pasuk in Iyov 8:7, V'hayah reishischa mitzar v'acharischa yisgeh meod, "Then, though your beginning was insignificant, your end will flourish exceedingly." In the Talmud Kiddushin 40b, Chazal explain that Hashem brings adversity on the righteous while they are in this world, so that when they come "home" to their eternal rest in Olam Habba, the World to Come, they will reap incredible reward. Not so the nations of the world, who make this world their home. They live a life of abandon, reaping the rewards of a life without obedience, without self-control, without purpose. Ultimately, they will be reimbursed in Gehinnom, Purgatory. Therefore, we precede the "night," the pain and troubles associated with the darkness of this world, so that when the day dawns, we will receive our reward. The nations of the world, however, count the night as part of the previous day. Having enjoyed their Olam Habba in this world, they must now prepare for what is in store for them at "night."

Rav Levinstein notes that the troubles that plague us in this world are linked to zeriah, planting. When one plants a seed, he knows that it will rot in the ground and then germinate. This process produces the roots of the plant which will grow into maturity. In the beginning [as the seed rots away,] it appears as if it is all a waste, until, a few days later, we see a metamorphosis. Hazorim b'dimah b'rinah yiktzoru, "Those who sow with tears will reap with joy" (Tehillim 126:5). Likewise, man atones for his sins in this world, so that in the Eternal World he can rest assured, with bountiful reward. This is why the Torah begins the parsha, Isha ki tazria. A woman who yearns to give birth to a healthy male child must prepare herself to accept the tazria period, the adversity, to accept the pain, the challenges, the issues. Thus, David Hamelech says, Achor vakedem tzartani, "The kedem, the fruit, representing the finished child, is the result of undergoing the achor, adversity which preceded it.

Likewise, the Chasam Sofer writes concerning the births of Yitzchak Avinu and Yishmael. Avraham Avinu married Hagar, and she immediately conceived Yishmael. Avraham married Sarah Imeinu, and she had to undergo seventy years of infertility. Why? Indeed, people began to talk: Hagar is more righteous than Sarah; Hagar conceived immediately, yet Sarah has yet to conceive!

Veritably, explains the Chasam Sofer, to have a son like Yishmael did not require much zeriah. To produce a son like Yitzchak, who was to be the next link in the Patriarchal chain of our People, required seventy years of tears, prayer and pain! Sarah sustained seventy years of adversity to produce a Yitzchak, not just anyone -Yitzchak! This is how we view life - Hazorim b'dimah - b'rinah yiktzoru.

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male… if a person will have on the skin of his flesh a seis, or a sapachas. (12:2) (13:2)

As happens often, I received a call from a father who was celebrating his son's bar-mitzvah on Parashas Tazria, and he wanted something to say for a Dvar Torah. Obviously, I had written Parashas Tazria a few weeks ahead of time. After giving it some thought, I began to wonder: What is the connection between Parashas Tazria and bar-mitzvah? The question actually goes deeper. Tazria begins with the laws concerning a woman who gives birth, the korbanos she should offer after a period of time and other laws connected with birth. The Torah then moves on to the laws of tzaraas, a sort of spiritual leprosy. We read about tzaraas for the remainder of the parsha - and the next parsha, as well. A woman bringing life into the world; a person relegated to living his life in seclusion in quarantine - almost like death. Do these two topics have a common denominator? Perhaps we may suggest the following.

Ishah ki sazria, parents have a child. It is not pre-determined that they will have nachas from this child. It depends upon the various educational and parental choices they make. This, in addition to the many factors and circumstances in life which always seem to crop up when we expect and need them the least, most often determines the child's success. It all depends upon choices. The right choices most often engender success; the wrong choices invariably spell disaster. The issue often boils down to the definition of right and wrong. I must add that success is relative, and its definition is often subjective - but that is a separate discussion.

Let us now turn to tzaraas, which is the consequence of speaking lashon hora, evil speech. Here, too, choices play a critical role. Chazal teach, Ha'chaim v'ha'maves b'yad ha'lashon, "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue." One does not have to speak ill of others; one is not compelled to slander them. One individual may actively desire to impugn the reputation of another maliciously. A second person simply does not think before he speaks, with the result that someone becomes his victim.

The tongue is not a bad organ. It all depends how one uses it. One can choose life; one can choose death. Regrettably, the choices are not always so clear. Often what one thinks is life is actually the long road to death - and vice versa. This is why we have the benefit of Torah to guide us in making the correct choices.

The greatest gift other than life itself, is the ability to choose one course of action from a set of alternatives. The ability to choose sets us apart as intelligent humans from those who are not so. With the opportunity of choice comes responsibility, which is the prelude to reward. We take responsibility for our choices, and we follow through to our goals. When we achieve those goals, our reward is the happiness accompanying the realization of our goals. Choice is the creative power of life. One who ignores this gift goes through life in a static sense, without feeling, without enthusiasm, without goals. He does not lead. He is led by the flow. Some of us are afraid to make choices, because of the responsibility they incur; others fear making the wrong choice. We must determine what we ultimately seek out of life, what our goals are. If we use a modicum of intelligence, we will choose to follow the path that leads to the fruition of our goals. When there are bumps in the road, we change course when necessary. Life offers no guarantees. One who makes poor choices, however, or lacks the intelligence or maturity to enter into the process of choosing, is probably assured of some form of failure. Indeed, even if he just goes with the flow and somehow makes it, it will have been an uneventful, bland journey. P.S. There is one thing worse than making the wrong choice in life: perpetuating that wrong decision.

She shall bring a sheep within its first year for an Elevation-offering and a young dove or a turtle dove for a Sin-offering… and the Kohen shall provide atonement for her and she shall leave purified. (12:6,8)

The new mother is required to bring a korban, sacrifice, to atone - for what? This woman just brought a new neshamah, soul, into the world. She should be the recipient of accolades. Yet, she must bring a korban to atone for herself. Chazal teach that Moshiach will not arrive until all of the neshamos that are "waiting" in Heaven are born. She, in fact, was mekareiv, brought closer, the geulah, Final Redemption. Still, she must bring a korban for atonement. Chazal address this question and explain that, because during the extreme pangs of childbirth she had uttered an oath, "Never again." Clearly, she regrets even the thought. Therefore, an atonement is required to expunge something that she articulated under duress and certainly did not mean.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, offers another approach towards understanding the necessity for atonement. Concerning the mitzvah of Mechias zeichar Amalek, the Torah writes: Zachar es asher asah lecha Amalek… timcheh es zeichar Amalek - Lo sishkach, "Remember what Amalek did to you… you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek - you shall not forget!" Chazal explore the redundancy of the admonishment. Remember to wipe out - do not forget; zachor - remember - vocally; lo sishkach - do not forget - in your heart. Therefore, we must reiterate in our minds our animus for what Amalek did to us and express it.

Rav Zaitchik takes a more practical approach. Indeed, there was a time when we had Amalek on our minds constantly. We were surrounded by enemies at every front. Even now, when we have finally been able to return to Eretz Yisrael, we must stand in readiness, never knowing when the next Arab terrorist will decide to wreak havoc on our lives. Let us imagine the following scenario. We have finally rid ourselves of our enemies. Hashem has seen to it that we are free of external adversity. The dogs are not just at bay; they are gone - forever. The defense minister has retired. We no longer need an army. His position is superfluous. The question is: Will we still remember to thank Hashem?

To this, the Torah responds: Even when you are at peace, and the threat of Amalek no longer looms over you - Lo sischkach, "Do not forget Hashem's miracles." It is easy to "remember" when we are surrounded by enemies on all sides. Will we, however, maintain this "memory" when it is only a "memory" - or will we forget? The Torah circumvents this problem by admonishing us - never forget what he did to you.

We quickly forget the pain, the sleepless nights, the torrent of tears that accompanied the tzarah, trouble, that had until recently enveloped and consumed our lives. Now that Hashem has listened to our prayers and the tzarah is in the past, we revert back to our lives of complacency, our substandard davening, learning and mitzvah observance. I use the word substandard, because, for a short while, we had been able to show that, when necessary, we are able to be intense in our observance and passionate in our commitment. We forget too quickly. Life goes back to usual.

Rav Zaitchik applies this idea to explain the atonement for a yoledes, woman who gives birth. Prior to delivering, she was in intense pain, the pangs of childbirth driving her to pray, to cry out to Hashem to allow this to pass quickly, without pain. Hashem listened; a healthy child was born; mother and child are doing well. What about Hashem? Life returns to normal and, sadly, we begin to take Hashem for granted - until the next time.

Many of us are given reprieves or second chances at life. Do we understand the meaning and value of these supplemental opportunities? Some of us do - for a while, while others simply go on as if nothing has ever happened. I recently read a letter from a frum, observant, woman, who was at death's door until she was able to be the fortunate recipient of an organ from someone who was sadly not as fortunate. When we hear of the tremendous mazel of the recipient, we tend to ignore completely the fact that someone had to die in order for this transplant to take place. While the recipient's family is celebrating ecstatically, another family is lamenting the death of their loved one.

This woman wrote a loving, poignant letter to the family of the organ donor. She expressed her gratitude to them and to their tragically-mourned daughter whose lung now breathes in her body. She described how her life was at its end. She could not go on. Even the most elementary and simple projects had become impossible for her to perform. Then she received the call: "A lung is available." As she rode to the hospital, sharing the back of the ambulance with her own twenty-two-year old daughter, she realized that someone else's daughter had just died, and she was receiving her lung. So many ideas ran through her mind as she was being prepped for surgery and given anesthesia. The next thing she knew, she was awake and breathing - on her own! A miracle had occurred.

How much she thanked Hashem! All of this is no surprise. We all thank Hashem - initially, but does it continue? Do we remember that we have been given a second chance? I, therefore, close with the sentence in this woman's letter which was most moving and should be for us most memorable: "My promise to you is that I will never waste one moment of my life."

If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a seis, or a sapachas. (13:2)

The Torah details various forms of tzaraas, which is often incorrectly translated as "leprosy." It is a spiritual illness that manifests itself in the body by displaying white spots on one's skin, similar to leprosy. The Sifsei Kohen posits that the words seis and sapachas allude to two spiritual deficiencies which catalyze the tzaraas. Seis is connected to hisnasus, elevating/lording oneself over others, raising himself above those around him. Such a person walks with an upright gait as if to "push up against the Shechinah" Who towers over everyone, melo kol ha'aretz Kevodo, "The entire earth is filled with His Glory." One who arrogates himself over others, pushes himself upon, thereby "cramping up against the Shechinah." Hashem says, Ein Ani v'hu yecholim ladur k'echad, "I and he are not able to live together."

One who is arrogant eventually belittles himself and, in time, loses his distinction. Seis u'sapachas; one who raises himself up ultimately become nifchas, diminished. Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, relates a conversation he had with the Ponevezer Rav, Horav Yosef Kahneman, zl. The Rav was a close student of the Chafetz Chaim, zl. One day, the Chafetz Chaim turned to his student, "Yosha (a term of endearment for the name Yosef), you know, of course, that Hashem loves each and every Jew, despite the circumstances in which he finds himself. Once Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, was learning the Sefer Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu, and he came across a passage in which the author cites the many attributes of Hashem. Among them he includes, sameach b'chelko, being happy with his lot/portion. He questions this quality. Being satisfied with one's lot applies to a human being who, despite wanting more, settles for less and is happy with what he has. It will suffice. Hashem, however, does not have to settle. He can create anything that He wants. The concept of "settling" is foreign regarding Hashem. He either has it - or He will make it. This question so thoroughly troubled Rav Chaim that he decided to travel to Vilna to speak it over with his Rebbe, the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna.

The Gaon explained that Hashem's chelek, portion/lot, is Klal Yisrael. Yes, we are Hashem's portion. The Almighty wants His portion to be as perfect as possible, so that both the collective nation and each Jew individually should strive to be the paragon of perfection. Alas, it is not all in the hands of Heaven. Chazal teach: Hakol b'yidei Shomayim, chutz m'yiraas Shomayim, "Everything is in the hands of Heaven - except for fear of Heaven!" This is one quality that Hashem has given over to us. We are in control of our spiritual health. If a Jew reneges his opportunity to be a yarei Hashem, G-d-fearing Jew, he will not be compelled by Heaven to be observant. It is his choice. Therefore, Hashem is sameach b'chelko, is "pleased"/"happy"/"accepts" each and every Jew as he is. Even when we were exiled from our own home, when we lost the Bais Hamikdash, Temple, Hashem accompanied us throughout the millennia. From adversity to misfortune; from degradation to humiliation; from the spiritual high of Yerushalayim with the Bais Hamikdash, to the spiritual impurity in which we have been subjected to make our home - Hashem came along with us, Ha'Shochein itam b'soch tumasam, "Who resides with them (even when they are) within their impurity."

"If this is the case," asked the Chafetz Chaim, "if Hashem tolerates our degradation and does not forsake His commitment to us, despite our wallowing in the filth of spiritual impurity, why is it that He has zero tolerance for the baal gaavah, the arrogant person? What makes the sin of arrogance so egregious that it stands out above/below all of the rest?

The Toras Chaim (Sanhedrin 90a) explains the essence of a tzaddik, righteous person, as being manifest by the first letter of its spelling, which also happens to be that letter of the alphabet which defines it. The tzadik is a letter which is comprised of a nun - slightly bent over, with a yud sitting above it. The yud represents Hashem, the nun of tzadik is bent over to allow for Hashem's Presence to rest on it. Together, they comprise the tzadik. This alludes to the notion that the righteous are a merkavah, chariot, for the Almighty. They are bent over - with humility, sort of to make room for the Almighty. This is how the righteous live - ever-cognizant that the Almighty is above them.

Returning to the question, the Ponevezer Rav was stumped. Veritably why is Hashem so offended by the baal gaavah, more so than any other sinner? The Chafetz Chaim explained, "Hashem resides among the one who is tamei, spiritually contaminated, because for him there is hope; he can immerse himself in pure water and become purified. Likewise, the rasha, wicked person, can wake up, introspect, and realize that he has spent his life wallowing in the mire of sin; his life has been one big waste. This will impress him to get his act together, make spiritual amends and repent. For him, too, there is hope."

"The baal gaavah is a tipeish, fool." The Chafetz Chaim quotes the Ramban in his Iggeres, Epistle, "Bameh yisgaeh lev ha'adam? 'With what should the heart of man arrogate itself?' If because of wealth - Hashem determines who should be poor and who should be wealthy. Is it because of his glory? Glory comes from G-d (Only He has true glory). Is it in his wisdom? Hashem can easily change that. In other words, whatever the baal gaavah thinks he is really comes from Hashem. He, actually, has nothing. Why is he arrogant? Obviously, he is a shoteh, fool. For a fool, there is no hope!"

The Ponevezer Rav looked up at his Rebbe and said, "The Rebbe has no idea in how much debt I am to him. The Rebbe actually saved me!"

"How?" asked the Chafetz Chaim.

"One of my baalei batim, lay members, asked me a question concerning the Haggadah. The Haggadah lists the four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, the one who does not know how to ask. It seems that it lists one son with its opposite. If so, it should say chacham - tipeish, fool. Why is the rasha the converse of the chacham? One is either a tzaddik or rasha - chacham or tipeish. At first, I did not know what to reply. Now, however, it all makes sense. The chacham prayed to Hashem asking, 'Hashem, please have pity on me. I have only one request; Please do not place me next to the tipeish. I am willing to be with the rasha. I know what he is, and I can prepare myself by making the necessary effort to distance myself from him. Even bumping into the tipeish by chance, however, can be harmful. I fear being anywhere in his proximity.'" Hashem listened.

The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin… the Kohen shall look at it and declare him contaminated. (13:3)

The Kohen is looking at the same nega, plague, - once; yet, the Torah writes that he sees/looks twice. Why is there a redundancy? The Meshech Chochmah offers a powerful insight to explain that, in fact, the Kohen is instructed to have a "double take," look twice: once at the plague; and once at the person who manifests the plague. In the Talmud Moed Katan 7b, Chazal quote the pasuk, "U'b'yom heiraos bo; 'On the day that healthy flesh appears in it" (Vayikra 13:14).' There are days during which you (Kohen) may view the nega, and there are days when the Kohen should not view the nega." This teaches that a chassan, bridegroom, upon whom a nega has surfaced, is to be given (allowed to celebrate) the shivas yemei mishtah, seven days of festivity following the wedding. Likewise, if the nega were to appear right before the Regel, one of the three Festivals, the metzora is not deemed impure, so that the individual may celebrate the seven days of the Festival.

The Meshech Chochmah derives from here that the Kohen does much more than look at the plague. He must also take into consideration the time frame when this plague appears. A plague may appear to be tamei, ritually impure, but, until the Kohen declares it to be tamei, it is tahor, still pure. The Kohen may not declare a chassan tamei if it means that he will have his sheva brachos ruined. If a husband/father must become tamei prior to Yom Tov, it will destroy the joy of the Festival not only for him, but equally for his entire family. Therefore, the Torah writes that the Kohen looks at the plague - but before he declares it to be tamei, he must look again at the circumstances surrounding the plague. What will be the greater ramifications of his decision? Thus, the Torah instructs the Kohen to first look at the affliction to see if it has simanei tumah, signs of contamination. Then, after he has determined that indeed the affliction has all the signs of tumah, the Kohen should now look again - at the person: Is he presently up to becoming tamei, or, perhaps, it would be best to wait.

What an inspirational commentary! We live in an age of "egos" in a generation so overwhelmed with insecurity that many of those who are charged with making decisions act out of pressure, rather than employing basic common sense or a dose of compassion. When we discipline students, do we take into consideration the wider ramifications of our decision? Do we think how it will affect the parents, siblings, the student? Do we even care? "But if I keep this boy/girl in my school I will look bad; the school's reputation might suffer." The Kohen had to delay his "call" on the affliction, even though his "take" on it was tamei, but it would deprive the man and his family of the Yom Tov. Why should the kallah, bride, suffer? Let her have her week with her new husband.

I remember a few years ago making a shivah call to the Hellman family, who had just lost the patriarch of the family, Rav Uri Hellman, zl, the legendary educator and pioneer of girls' education. There were so many stories about this great man. One episode that impacted me then and has inspired me over the years was related by his secretary. Apparently, after school started, Rav Hellman would retire to his office, close the door, and do his work. The secretary would bring him a slice of cake and a cup of coffee. At the end of the day, she would retrieve the empty dishes. That day, Rav Hellman had the misfortune of having to ask a girl to leave the school. The secretary went about her daily ritual in her usual manner. This day, however, when she returned at 4:00 p.m., the cake and coffee had not yet been touched. She asked Rav Hellman what had happened, why he had not eaten the cake, or at least, drunk the coffee. Rav Hellman looked up from the sefer he was reading and said, "You know that I must speak today with a certain girl, and you are aware of the ramifications of this necessary decision. When I must ask a girl to leave the school, it is a fast day for me! I cannot eat! How could I eat, knowing that I am sending a Jewish girl out on the street?!"

One last story: My good friend, Rabbi Raphael Gelley, was in the Akron/Canton airport waiting to board a flight to New York. He struck up a conversation with a young soldier returning for a second tour of duty in Iraq. He asked the fellow, "What motivates you to go back?" "As long as my Commander-in-Chief (President George W. Bush) says, 'There will be no dessert in the White House until every American soldier returns home,' I will continue to fight." This is secure and sensitive leadership.

U'Nasati metar artzechem b'ito yoreh u'malkosh.

Then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and late rains.

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, explains the significance of metar artzechem, rain for your land, which can also be translated as rain of your land, as reference to specific rain. When Klal Yisrael is undeserving of Hashem's favor, because they have not appreciated all of His good and thus have not observed His mitzvos, Hashem still sends His rain to nurture the crops. There is, however, one drawback: This rain is not metar artzechem; it is not rain from Eretz Yisrael, artzeinu ha'kedoshah, our Holy Land. This is rain from chutz la'aretz, the Diaspora, rain that is not blessed with the unique attributes invested in Eretz Yisrael rain. Thus, this rain does not catalyze the blessings that are the consequence of Eretz Yisrael rain, nor do they come b'itam, at a propitious time, when they are welcomed and not a "nuisance." When Klal Yisrael osin retzono shel Makom, carry out the will of the Almighty, we receive metar artzechem, our rain, Eretz Yisrael rain, gishmei brachah, rain that is blessed and which catalyzes blessing. It is truly sad when we do not realize how good we really have it. There is sustenance that comes as a blessing, and there is sustenance which we receive almost as an "after thought." It is all based upon our allegiance to Hashem.

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