Tuesday, April 28, 2015

equal but separate

If want to try to add up some of the details of tzara’as and the process of taharah and see if we can make some sense of the picture as a whole. 

The metzorah must take two identical birds as part of his taharah process. One of them is shechted and the blood is used for sprinkling etc. The second one, however, is just sent away. What’s the point of taking this bird just to release it again into the wild? Ramban already touches on this question and tells us that it is the same idea behind the “sod” of sending away the sa’ir l’azazel, which doesn’t help us too much unless you are privy to the sod. Abarbanel suggests that the lesson here is that all is in G-d’s hands. Just as you can have two seemingly identical birds yet one is shechted and one lives, so too, two seemingly identical people may suffer different fates in life. 

Another interesting detail in the metzorah’s taharah process is the korban asham which is brought. The Torah in fact gives almost no attention to the other korbanos (see Ramban) but focusses almost exclusively on the asham. Why an asham? Seforno explains that a korban asham is brought for an issur me’ila, stealing from hekdesh. A metzorah is guilty of being haughty, and Chazal tell us that someone who is haughty, a ba’al ga’avah, drives away the Shechina, [which amounts to taking himself so to speak away from hekdesh.]

The final point I want to call attention to is an observation made by R’ Ya’akov Medan from Gush, who points out that the command to the metzorah to cut his hair and rip his clothes is the exact flipside of the instructions given in Shmini to Aharon and his children not to tear their clothes or touch their hair. Similarly, while the metzorah musty remain outside all the camps, the kohen is entitled to enter into the holiest sections of the mishkan. The metzorah is affected with tumah; the kohen is empowered to declare him tahor. I would add that Rashi later in Bamidbar (8:7) writes that the process of shaving done to the Levi’im to inaugurate them into service is a direct parallel to the shaving of the metzorah. So we have direct opposites and direct parallels, both of which point to some kind of relationship.

Last week I mentioned a Midrash that explains that the officer who did not believe the navi Elisha’s prophecy that the famine would end and wheat would be dirt cheap did not deny G-d’s power to perform miracles and did not deny the ability of the navi to see the future – what he denied was that his generation, a generation that he considered on the same level as the dor hamabul, was worthy of such a miracle. Rav Tvi Tau describes this as a failure to recognize the “segulah” aspect of Am Yisrael. The worthiness of the nation to merit salvation is not something that can be reduced to a calculus of plusses and minuses alone; there is a transcendent element to the bond between G-d and the Jewish people that goes beyond that. G-d is not too holy to help even the worst sinners. All that is necessary is to believe that G-d will in fact do so, and it is that belief that the king’s officer dampened. 

This idea – the denial of a qualitative imperceptable segulah element – is what I think is the hallmark of the sin of metzorah and is why the story of the king’s officer is the haftarah for the parsha. Two identical birds are taken by the metzorah -- one is killed, one is sent away. What’s the difference between one and the other? That’s exactly the point – nothing noticeable is different, and yet the fates of the two diverge. The king’s officer could not see a difference between his generation and the generation of the flood, yet af al pi kein, there is a segulah aspect to Am Yisrael that does makes a difference, even if it doesn’t add up in our minds. Two objects appear identical on the surface, yet by using one of them a person becomes chayav in meila and must bring an asham and the other not. What’s the difference? Again, it’s not something that can be seen, but it is the segulah aspect, the fact the one of the objects is hekdesh, which makes the difference. A kohen or levi looks like anyone else, yet again, it is the segulah aspect of their election that sets them apart. When Miriam spoke against her brother Moshe because she thought he was no different than any other navi, she is afflicted with tzara’as; her sin was not recognizing the segulah of a Moshe Rabeinu.

But don’t Chazal say that tzara’as is a punishment for lashon ha’ra? How does that fit this framework? The answer is that this gufa is the underlying crime of lashon ha’ra. The sin of gossip is not just about speaking harmful words – it’s about denying the inherent worth of the individual spoken about. Just as the officer of the king saw only the faults of Klal Yisrael and did not recognize that in G-d’s eyes they were still worthy of help, evil gossip focusses on the negative traits in others and does not see the segulah that makes each individual special.

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