Parshiyot Tazria - Metzora


(Leviticus 12:1-13:59 Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

"The priest shall command; and for the person being purified [of leprosy] there shall be taken two live, clean birds, cedarwood, scarlet thread, and hyssop." (Leviticus 14:4)

Our verse describes the part of the atonement process for a m'tzora--a person whose skin was afflicted with a disease known as tzara'as, commonly mistranslated, for a lack of a better word, as leprosy. Tzara'as is a punishment for the sins of slander and gossip. The underlying cause of slander is haughtiness which breeds contempt for others and thus impels a person to talk against his fellow. Atonement demands that the sinner purge himself of the moral flaws that led to the sin. After the sinner had been physically healed through his repentance process, the kohen (priest--descendant of Aaron) would make the final determination that the m'tzora was actually healed. Then he would bring an offering. The three items that accompanied the bird offering were cedarwood, a scarlet thread, and hyssop. Cedarwood, because it grows tall, imposing and wide, symbolizing haughtiness (Rashi; Talmud: Arachin 16a) [Note: Below, the tallness of the cedar will be explained in a different light]. Scarlet thread--this woolen thread was dyed red with a pigment made from a lowly worm-like creature, a type of snail, whose identity is unclear. This symbolizes the penitent's newfound humility. Hyssop--A lowly bush, symbolizes the same idea of humility. The meanings of these three things is actually discussed in the context of the ritual of the red heifer. The red heifer, which purified those who had become spiritually contaminated by coming in contact with death, was burnt with the very same three items. Without this cleansing process, one could not enter the precincts of the Temple or participate in the Pascal offering. Although these three items were discussed in the textual material elsewhere, since it well serves our purposes, we have included it here to explain the law of the m'tzora. Cedarwood, scarlet thread and hyssop are tools of spiritual cleansing that are common to both the m'tzora and to those individuals contaminated by the dead. Why was it important that this purification process be effected through the priest? Why was it necessary to use those three items? How did they help bring about spiritual healing? The cerdarwood and hyssop had to be bound together by the scarlet thread. Why? Based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman and his student Rav Noson we will explore the practical advice that can be derived from this seemingly strange process.

There is principle that the physical appearance of an object in some way reflects its spiritual properties, as the Talmud teaches, "The earthly kingdom resembles the Heavenly Kingdom." (Talmud: Berachot 58a) Since the cedar tree is very tall and powerful, it indicates that its spiritual essence is both high and powerful. Rav Noson says that the lofty cedar tree contains spiritual energies that are associated with high intelligence. Highly intelligent individuals possess great clarity in perceiving the ways of Hashem and knowing how to apply them on the practical level. Therefore, the spiritual energies of high intelligence found within the cedar tree are the very same energies associated with the great Tzaddikim (saints), who possess a uniquely lofty understanding of the ways of Hashem and know how to properly apply them, as the verse says, "The righteous will blossom like a date palm, like a cedar in Lebanon, he will grow tall [spiritually, through his great intellect]." (Psalms 92:13) The lowly hyssop stands in complete contrast to the lofty cedar. As mentioned above, the appearance of a physical item reflects it essence. Therefore the low lying hyssop reflects low and unclear perception of the ways of Hashem, commonly found in people who are on extremely low spiritual levels. In both the rituals of the m'tzora and the red heifer, the spiritual energies of the cedar and the hyssop are merged when they are tied together. This teaches us that the great Tzaddikim must take their lofty understanding of the spiritual realms and help spiritually estranged people understand and digest them. This is what Hashem desires most. One of the main ideas that the Torah wants to convey in requiring that the lofty cedarwood be united with the lowly hyssop is that both spiritual and physical healing are dependent upon one's association with the Tzaddikim and their teachings.

The rituals of the m'tzora and the red heifer both entailed the use of a scarlet thread, called tola'at shani, to tie the cedarwood and the hyssop together. A thing's name reflects the spiritual energies it contains. The word tola'at, thread, also means worm in Hebrew. So the spiritual energies contained within the scarlet thread were similar to those found within the worm. Concerning the worm, our sages say, "Despite the pitiful weakness of the worm, it does have strength (a'zut) in one area. Armed with nothing more than its mouth, the worm destroys the mighty cedars. Thus, this soft and flexible organism can topple the rigid and hard tree. Similarly, Israel smites the nations, armed with nothing more than the prayers in their mouths [and the study of Torah]." (Midrash Shocher Tov) The mighty cedar, as mentioned above, contains the spiritual energies of strength and the lowly hyssop, meekness. Since the tola'at thread is associated with the spiritual energies of the worm, which possesses the spiritual energies of both strength and meekness, it is only fitting that it be used in bringing the two opposites, the cedar and the hyssop, together. From this, we can see that the popular perception of what constitutes humility is flawed.

Most believe that the humble person should act like a spineless doormat, always yielding and never taking a stand, demonstrating his total submission to all of humanity by walking with his head bent down. Rabbi Nachman says that true humility is responding appropriately, as each situation demands. There are situations which require that we should be as yielding as a reed and yet there other situations that demand just the opposite, when we must take the initiative in aggressive and firm action. Our sages call this azut d'kedusha, holy boldness, which is absolutely necessary for both prayer and Torah study. Rabbi Nachman explains how azut d'kedusha applies to Torah study and prayer. "There are two types of daring. There is azut d'kedusha, without which it is impossible to assimilate the Torah into one's being, as our sages teach, 'The bashful person does not learn.' (Talmud: Avot 2:5) The sages also taught, 'Why was the Torah given [only] to Israel [and not to any other nation]? Because they are daring. (Talmud: Beitza 25b) In yet another teaching, the sages say, 'Be bold as a carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.' (Talmud: Avot 5:23) Thus the Torah is referred to as something that induces boldness, as it is written, 'Hashem gives [a doctrine of] boldness [the Torah] to His people.' (Psalms 29:11) Conversely, those who lack holy humility and daring are connected with the brazenness of the forces of evil, as our sages taught, 'Whoever is brazen-faced, it is certain that the feet of his ancestors did not stand at Mount Sinai [the place where the Torah was given. In other words, the spiritual energies of holy daring that were present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, were not assimilated into his soul. The souls of all those who were destined to receive the Torah, then and in the future, were at Mount Sinai].' (Talmud: Nedarim:20a)

Azut d'kdusha is necessary for prayer. For Hashem has arranged that that things go a certain way, with each star and constellation set in its own individual order [through which nature is controlled]. Yet the individual comes with his prayer and wants to rearrange the order [of the stars and constellations], which will change nature and work wonders. [It takes nerve to attempt to undo what Hashem has decreed. A humble person might easily feel embarrassed to come before Hashem with a request that Hashem change something. Therefore, when we prays we must dislodge this embarrassment and utilize azut d'kdusha, as it is written, "In You (Hashem) our fathers trusted...they trusted [prayer is dependent upon trust] and were not embarrassed." (Psalms 22:5, 6) The verse says, 'Let the Tzaddik strike me with lovingkindness [his rebuke] and let him correct me, like choice oil...but my only prayer is [against involvement] in the evil doings [of the wicked]." (Psalms 141:5) The verse means to say: Through the rebuke I receive from the Tzaddik, the spiritual energies of Hashem's lovingkindness are activated and bestowed upon me. Therefore, even if a Tzaddik demeans us, we should accept his rebuke in order to receive Hashem's lovingkindness. (1 Lekutai MoHaran 30:8) Based on Rabbi Nachman's above statements, Rav Noson says that in order for one to fully achieve true and pure Torah study and prayer, one needs the spiritual energies of azut d'kedusha. The Tzaddik HaEmes (the leading saint of the generation) is one who has acquired and perfected these spiritual energies. Therefore, when the Tzaddik HaEmes gives rebuke, the spiritual energies of perfected azut d'kedusha are emitted from his essence and injected into the recipient of the rebuke. This endows the rebukee with spiritual energies needed to embolden him to return to Hashem in repentance through true and sincere Torah study and prayer. All of Judaism is dependent upon azut d'kedusha, as the holy Tur says, "Boldness is a basic and vital requirement for serving Hashem. There are times when a person wishes to perform a commandment but desists, due to his fear that someone will ridicule or reject him. He is too embarrassed to perform the commandment in front of other people. Therefore, the Mishna (Avot 5:20) warns that a person must be very bold in the face of mockers and not be embarrassed." (Tur: Orach Chaim 1:1) Whenever we reach a new spiritual level, we encounter forces of evil which place innumerable spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, financial, etc. barriers in front of each person in order to prevent us from finding, serving, and reaching Hashem. The only way to overcome these barriers is strong determination and great daring and courage. So the only way every person, from the greatest to the lowest, can achieve any understanding of and closeness with Hashem is through azut d'kedusha, being willing to fight one's way through the barriers, regardless of the consequences. Yet there are other circumstances when the appropriate response is to be yielding. These lessons are so aptly expressed by the laws of the m'tzora and the red heifer that require that the scarlet thread, tola'at shani, be used to tie the lofty cedar, which represents strength, together with the lowly hyssop, which represents meekness. [A person would become a m'tzora because he dared to gossip about or slander another in violation of Hashem's will and moral decency. This type of daring is from the side of evil. The m'tzora's purification process would imbue him with the spiritual energies of azut d'kedusha, needed to negate the boldness derived from the forces of evil. In addition, it would provide him with the fortitude to fully repent and return to adherence to the Torah].

As mentioned above, the tola'at--worm, is lowly and insignificant, but possesses great power in its mouth. The spiritual energies of the worm are indispensible and Rav Noson says that they are associated with Jewish survival in exile. The Jew in exile has absolutely no source of power, except for his mouth. Faith, expressed in prayer and Torah learning, has always been the most important element of Jewish survival throughout the long and difficult exile. Whenever Torah study and prayer diminished, the Jewish community suffered threats to its very existence, in the forms of evil decrees, pogroms, assimilation, intermarriage etc. So, the two main expressions of azut d'kedusha, Torah and prayer, have been our only defense and the key to our very survival, throughout the two millennia of exile, as the verse says, "Of Your (Hashem's) awesome might they (the Jews) will speak [with their mouths." The verse associates might or daring with the mouth.] (Psalms 145:6) "And Your (Hashem's) might they (the Jews) will declare [with their mouths]." (Psalms 145:11) That the worm, whose power is in its mouth, and the scarlet thread have the same name indicates that the scarlet thread, used to bind the cedar with the hyssop, also resonates with the power of the mouth, as the verse says, "Like the scarlet thread, are your lips." (Song of Songs 4:3)

As mentioned above, azut d'kedusha, means that one responds appropriately as the situation demands. King David epitomized this ideal, as the verse says, "These are the mighty men who[served] David: He who sat in the assembly of the wise, the chief of the threesome, he was Adino the Etznite: [who lifted up his spear] against eight hundred, [whom he] slew at one time." (2 Samuel 23:8) The name Adino comes from the Hebrew word adin, meaning delicate. The name Etznite comes from the Hebrew word etz, which means tree. The sages say that "Adino the Etznite" actually refers to King David, who made himself as delicate (adin) as a worm when he studied the Torah, but when he went out to war he hardened himself as wood (etz). This statement of the sages is the true definition of azut d'kedusha, where at times one must be associated with the spiritual energies of shame, as the verse says, "But I (King David) am a worm, and not a man; scorn of man and despised by people." (Psalms 22:7) The Talmud teaches, "Hashem said to Israel, 'I love you because even when I bestow greatness upon you, you humble yourselves before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham, yet he said to Me, 'I am but dust and ashes' (Genesis 18:27); upon Moshe (Moses) and Aaron, yet they said to Me, 'We are nothing' (Exodus 16:8); upon David, and he said to Me, 'but I am a worm, and not a man." (Talmud: Chulin 89a) Conversely, when the very fiber of Judaism, the Torah and its commandments are threatened, one must fight like a mighty warrior against all those who try to undermine the word of Hashem, as the Talmud teaches, "Be bold as a carry out the will of your Father in Heaven." (Talmud: Avot 5:23)

Rav Noson says that the following verse, sung on Sabbath night, which praises a woman of valor, is consistent with our teaching: "She [the virtuous woman] fears not for her household for snow, for all her household are dressed with scarlet (sha'nim)." (Proverbs 31:21) The sages say that the Hebrew word for scarlet, SHa'NiM, has the same root as the word SH'Ni'iM, which means two or double. Based on the rules of Biblical interpretation, we can replace the word scarlet with the word double. The verse can now be read, "(for all her household are doubly dressed," alluding to commandments which incorporate a double expression in its introduction. For example, the commandment of giving to the poor, "Give, you shall give (naToN tee'TeiN) him [your poor brother, even a thousand times according to our sages]..." (Deut. 15:10) Another verse states, "Open, [and again] you shall open (Pa'ToaCH tiPTaCH) your hand to your brother..." (Deut. 15:11) In yet another commandment, "But when you send him [your Hebrew slave] away free, you shall not send him away emptied-handed. Adorn, shall you adorn him (ha'A'NeiK ta'A'NiK) from your flocks... (Deut. 15:13, 14) [The verse in Proverbs thus informs us that] all these [types of commandments of giving liberally] save [a person] from the [freezing] snow of purgatory. (Rashi; Midrash Tanchuma) Ultimately, our verse can be understood as follows, "She [the virtuous woman] fears not for her household for snow, for all her household are clothed [or protected] with commandments that must be performed repeatedly (sh'ni'im), generously providing help to those most in need." (Proverbs 31:21)

Rav Noson further elaborates upon Rashi's explanation of this verse. What gives those commandments which mandate repetition, such as giving charity, a special power to save one from purgatory? By fulfilling them, a person conditions himself to the point where they become second nature, which reinforces his ability to perform all of the other commandments in general. This works because these particular commandments are associated with the spiritual energies of repetitiveness, which give a person the ability to perform all of the other commandments with consistency, regardless of his spiritual level, as the Talmud teaches, "One commandment leads to another commandment." (Talmud: Avoth 4:2) Rav Noson says that the fulfillment of the above mentioned types of commandments are critical, especially for those who, when they become aware of their shortcomings, tend to despair. In their despair, they abandon the fulfillment of the commandments altogether.

Rav Noson explains that purgatory consists of two types of punishments, half of the time the sinner is rectified through fire--the fire of the heat of the passion that influenced him to sin. The other half of the time, the sinner is rectified through snow--the coldness of his turning away from Hashem in his failure to repent. For the sinner disregarded the seriousness of his offense or despaired of Hashem's mercy and failed to make amends for his wrongdoing. When one performs the commandments that are associated with the spiritual energies of repetitiveness, it influences him to carry out all the commandments despite his overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and despair. So, he persists in his service to Hashem, despite his feelings of despondency and this saves him from severing his relationship with Hashem. As long as one continues to perform at least some of the commandments, one will maintain his connection with Hashem, which will eventually influence him to repent. This will save him from the punishment of purgatory, of both fire and snow. It is this concept to which the verse alludes.

The above implies that the fulfillment of those commandments that stand alone offer less protection than the commandments that are repeatedly performed. This is illustrated by the fact the m'tzora would achieve spiritual cleansing and be redeemed from his own sort of purgatory, only through things that have a double nature--the binding of the cedarwood together with the hyssop, using a scarlet thread [as mentioned above the word scarlet can be substituted with the word double]. Thus Rav Noson interprets the following teaching in the Talmud, "Do not believe in yourself (b'atzm'chaw) until the day you die." (Avoth 2:5) Rav Noson uses an alternate translation of the word b'atzm'chaw, 'by yourself' instead of 'in yourself'. Thus, he reads the teaching, "Do not believe [in Hashem], alone by yourself until the day you die." Without the proper guidance from the Tzaddik HaEmes (the leading saint of the generation) one could become so thoroughly deceived by the tricks of the forces of evil that he could come to despair and abandon Hashem altogether. No matter how bad an individual's spiritual situation, if he is associated with the proper spiritual guide, nothing in the world can trick or fool him into despair, because the spiritual guide will always be there to offer the proper guidance, as the verse says, "Two are better than one." (Eccl. 4:9) This is why Rabbi Nachman said that one's entire eternity is dependent upon following the advice of the Tzaddik HaEmes, and why the Torah was emphatic that the lowly hyssop, representing those on low spiritual levels, should be bound to the lofty cedar, which represents the Tzaddik HaEmes.

From the above, we can understand why the spiritual cleansing of the m'tzora and those contaminated through the dead could only be effected through the priest. The first priests, Aaron and his sons, were endowed with the powers of the priesthood through being anointed by the Tzaddik HaEmes, Moshe. The powers of the priesthood effect spiritual healing. Therefore, all priests, who are spiritually rooted to and are the descendants of Aaron and his sons, have inherited the energies of healing. The spiritual energies of healing, derived from the Tzaddik HaEmes are the very same energies contained in the cedar. This shows the great importance of drawing to oneself the spiritual energies of the Tzaddik HaEmes through adhering to his teachings. (Lekutai Halachot: Yorah Dayah: Hilchot Baser B'Chalav 5:23, 27-29)

The m'tzora was required to remain in isolation, outside the camp, until he was healed and spiritually cleansed. This was a 'measure-for-measure' atonement for his evil slander and gossip, for slander and gossip isolate people from each other. In the above teaching, we saw the dangers of isolation. The m'tzora atoned for his sin through his own isolation, experiencing firsthand the suffering that he had caused others, making him acutely aware of the grave spiritual harm that could result from isolation and loneliness. The m'tzora was cleansed through the binding together of cedarwood and hyssop, two opposites, with a scarlet thread, which illustrates Hashem's desire that one should work to bring people closer together, through the observance of the commandments of the Torah, which fosters true peace, as the verse says, 'All its (the Torah's) paths are peace." (Proverbs 3:17) So the m'tzora would realize that he had violated the spirit and true intent of the entire Torah and that Hashem desires that, instead of driving wedges between people, we must do everything in our power to bind people together and make peace.