This Parasha describes the disease of Tzaraas, commonly translated as leprosy. However, the Talmud states it is not Leprosy, as it is not curable with medicines. It is an affliction admonished by Hashem as a castigation for speaking Lashon Hara. The person is quarantined alone for 7 days, at which time the Kohen will check his status as stated in the Verses: “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. The Kohen shall go outside the camp, and check that the leper’s scaly affection has been healed.” (Leviticus 14:2-3)
There is a lengthy and unorthodox ritual in order to cleanse the Metzora. Two birds are required, with cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop. The first bird is slaughtered over pure water, then the Kohen dips the live bird together with the cedar wood, the crimson and the hyssop into the blood and sprinkles seven times the leper. This is, for the least, a very strange and unique ritual. Then the Verse states: “The one to be cleansed [the leper] shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in a Mikve; then he shall be clean. Then he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days.” The Metzora has already endured 7 days in quarantine at best, meaning if the condition healed after 7 days, otherwise he must remain an additional 7 days in quarantine. Thus, even after completing the ritual he is no entitled to enter his home for an additional 7 days.
This is besides the fact that his general appearance is affected for a long period of time. He must shave off all his hair, including eyebrows and eye lashes, giving him the appearance of a monster. His own family would hardly recognize him. Then he had to bring 3 sacrifices, an Olah, a Chatas and an Asham. The only other time this situation occurs in the Torah is when a Nazir impurified himself, he also had to bring the same 3 offerings. It is important to understand the connection between the Nazir and the Metzora in order to assimilate the reasons behind such a harsh treatment.
King Solomon says in Ecclesiastes (6:7): “All the person’s hardship is for the sake of his mouth, yet his soul will not be satiated”. The Midrash explains the meaning of this verse: “Rav Shmuel says, all the hard work to accomplish Mitzvos and good deeds is not sufficient to counter balance the effect of his mouth, even the departure of his soul will not fill the void.” The Zohar on Parashas Shemini clarifies the meaning. The life of the person depends on what he ingests or egests with his mouth. In Parashas Shemini, we have learnt the stringencies about consuming non-Kosher nutriments, and this Parasha deals with the stringencies due to the misuse of the mouth while speaking derogatively about a Jew. In both cases, despite the amount of Mitzvos and good deeds performed, the sinner will be punished harshly in this world, and his soul will be rejected from the world to come, as it gets a “foul smell.”
The Nazir through his vow requested closeness to Hashem. This is granted to him at the condition he remains pure. When he defiled himself, he demonstrated that he does not attach much importance to his words, despite that it was a vow. Moreover, his vow was made to the King of Kings, therefore he must have been more careful. Consequently, the level of impurity is significantly increased. Similarly, the Metzora has misused his mouth to damage another Jew. In both cases, their sin undermines the very concept that differentiates us from animals and that makes us somehow godly.
The reason the Torah is so stringent about the mouth is described by King Solomon in Proverb (30:11-14): “There is a breed of men that brings a curse on its fathers And brings no blessing to its mothers, A breed that thinks itself pure, Though it is not washed of its filth; A breed so haughty of bearing, so supercilious; A breed whose teeth are swords, Whose jaws are knives, Ready to devour the poor of the land, The needy among men.” Basically, it leads to a very bitter end where all values have been dejected. The question that arises is if there a remedy to such a sin? A person would be so afflicted by learning about the seriousness of his sins that he may feel demoralized and give up.
Rav Chaim Shmuelovitz zt”l notes many examples in the Tanakh where a person sinned or failed in one area and as a result, suffered a great decline that destroyed their spiritual standing. A striking case is that of Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi. When Naomi was returning to the land of Israel, both Ruth and Orpah were determined to stay with her and convert to Judaism. At this point, Orpah was on par with Ruth, equally willing to leave her homeland to join the Jewish Nation. However, after Naomi’s supplications for them to return, she could not withstand the
test and gave in and went back to Moav. Logically, Orpah should have still stand on a high spiritual level, just a little lower than Ruth. However, the Midrash recounts that on the very night, she sunk to the lowest levels of depravity. How could it be that she fell in such a dramatic way in one night? Rav Chaim explains that when she saw that she failed in the great test to join the Jewish people, she could not leave her sin behind and start afresh. She was greatly affected by her inability to stand up to challenges, and consequently lost all sense of balance and fell to the powers of the Yetser Hara. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz cites another incident when a great man failed a challenge and recognized the danger of being completely ensnared by the Yetser Hara. The Prophet Shmuel instructed King Saul to decimate all of Amalek, however Saul left some animals and the Amalekite King Agag alive. Shmuel confronted him and told him that he had forfeited his right to the kingdom with this sin. After failing to exonerate himself Saul admitted his guilt but then made a strange request. “Please now honor me in front of the Sages of my people and the people of Israel…” It was surely not an attempt by Saul to feel better about himself. Moreover, Shmuel acceded to the request, indicating its validity.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that Saul did not merely want honor, rather he knew that he was in danger of suffering a great fall and realized that he needed to strengthen himself immediately, so that he would not be adversely effected by his sin. Therefore, amidst this great spiritual fall he asked Shmuel to honor him and thereby help him maintain his sense of equilibrium and start afresh. Shmuel, despite his displeasure with Saul, consented to his request because he recognized its importance.
We also learn from the actions of Saul a strategy for how to prevent failure having a disastrous effect. When a person fails, he is likely to feel bad about himself and lose his sense of self-respect. When a person feels he is a failure he may give up and let himself low down. In order to prevent this pitfall, he must maintain the belief that despite his mistake Hashem is merciful and awaits his repentance. King Solomon illustrates the differentiation between a Tzadik and a commoner: “The righteous man falls seven times and rise back up.” Despite his setbacks the Tzadik will upsurge. These are the days of quarantine of the Metzora, a time to introvert and make Teshuva, then as magically as it appeared the disease disappears.
By Rabbi Shimon Fridmann * email@example.com * 305.985.3461
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