Sunday, April 03, 2011

seeing negaim -- seeing hashgacha pratis

The Midrash Tanchuma on this week's parsha relates:

A certain kohen decided that it was too hard to make a living in Eretz Yisrael, so he would go to chutz la'aretz. He conveyed his decision to his wife and told her that since people relied on him to look at their nega'im, he would teach her the skill (an eishes kohein has the right to see nega'im!? -- see the meforshim on the Tanchuma) so she could take on that role.

The kohen explained that if the hair on the nega looked unhealthy, that was an indication that there was some malignant problem below the skin. Every hair is individually nourished by Hashem. If Hashem chose to withhold that nourishment, something is wrong.

The wife heard her husband out and then pointed out the illogic of what he was telling her. If each and every hair is individually nourished and cared for by Hashem, kal v'chomer that a human being with thousands of hairs will be nourished and cared for by Hashem. Why then travel to chutz la'aretz to look for parnasa?

The kohen of our story certainly knew the halachos of nega'im, as evidenced by the fact that everyone relied on him to see them. Yet for all his expertise, he missed the lesson that his wife grasped after only a few minutes of study. The lesson of the Midrash seems to be one of missing the forest for the trees, becoming so engrossed in details as to miss the larger picture. When I was in YU I took a few classes on teaching Torah and Nach given by R' Nachum Muschel. I remember him (and hopefully my memory is accurate!) emphasizing that is was important to not only teach the text, but to also teach what he called the "ma'or she'ba'Torah" -- lessons about life, about human nature, etc. -- that we can take away. Too often teachers focus on the who, what, when, where, and occasionally the why of the Torah's narrative (which is what most kids in school learning Tanach are expected to regurgitate on tests) without ever encouraging students to think about what lessons the story is supposed to impart. To take an extreme example, a student who can rattle off who Avraham welcomed into his home, how many guests came, what food was served, where all this occurred, but fails to walk away with an appreciation of the value of hachnasas orchim has missed perhaps the most important ingredient in the story. It's not only about what the text says, but what's there between the lines. What does the parsha mean for us?

The kohen in the Midrash's story certainly seemed to have a grasp of the laws of tza'ra'as. He was confident that his expertise in this area of halacha would be missed when he left town. Yet, despite his expertise, or perhaps even because of the narrow focus of his expertise, it took his wife's insight to open the kohen's eyes to the broader lesson of the parsha.

There is perhaps another reason for the kohen's blindness to the lesson of the parsha for his own predicament. Tza'ra'as is a punishment. The kohen was sensitive to that message -- he focuses on hair as an indication of malignancy. What could that have to do with his choice to leave or remain in Eretz Yisrael?

What the kohein did not appreciate is that Hashem's punishment is not like human punishment. The Rishonim explain that tza'aras only occurred when Bnei Yisrael lived in Eretz Yisrael under the umbrella of overt hashgacha. Why, ask the meforshim, should a talmid chacham who sees a nega declare to the kohen, "k'nega nirah li," I saw a nega-like blemish? If the talmid chacham knows it is a valid nega, what's the harm in saying so with certainty? Answers the Chasam Sofer, the talmid chacham needs to show a little modesty. Not everyone is privileged to receive nega'im. Not everyone has Hashem reaching out with a wake up call when they are headed in the wrong direction. Chavivim yesurim! -- because yesurim are a sign that Hashem cares about what we are doing and wants to put is back on the right track; they are never the product of a desire for vindictiveness, revenge, or to cause pain.

The kohein saw nega'im. His wife saw hashgacha pratis.


  1. wives tend to see more than their husband -- going back to Sarah and Rivka.

  2. Anonymous12:42 PM

    understandably, Ariella--
    the co-pilot studies pedestrians;
    the man must steer the car!

  3. I don't think that's it at all. I think it's the same vision that Miriam had that made her convince her parents to stay together as an example for the people. And you have to realize that Amram was the gadol hador and Miriam just a little girl under bas mitzvah age. Avraham was told to listen to Sarah because she was able to see the danger to Yitzchak from Yishmael more clearly than her husband did. And, of course, Rivka knew that Esav was not worthy of the bracha Yitzchak intended to give him. This is more than a matter of looking out for pedestrians while someone else drives.

  4. so are you going to make a list of what is specific to a kohen and a woman can do? Everything except the ones listed in Kiddushin 36a, which assumes that kohanos can do whatever kohanim can do, and requires specific exclusions, I suppose, which would allow paskening on nega'im, cutting the hair of a metzora (which, by the way, the baal HaHafla'ah says in his pirush on Chumash), and taking pidyon haben money. So you can have the same person do the bris and the pidyon haben, and she can shecht the calf you're serving at the Seuda- Rabbi Judy.