Judaism: Tazria-Metzora and Shmini (in the Diaspora)
Rabbi Shlomo RiskinThe writer is the founding and Chief Rabbi of Efrata, Gush Etzion, as well as founder and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, author of Torah Lights and other well known Judaic texts.
"This is the law of the Metzora… he is to be brought to the Kohen-Priest" (Leviticus 14:2).
We have been suffering these past years from the unedifying sight of politicians and civil servants exposed for serious crimes including corruption, breach of trust, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice.
In Israel, these crimes have recently extended to the prime minister's bureau, a mere 13 months after our country's president was sentenced to seven years in prison for rape and other offenses. Many of the scandals have been exposed by the newspapers, leading to public debates about the role of the media: do they interfere too much in our society, or are they a healthy watchdog?
What is the Torah's view?
Metzorah is usually identified as a plague of leprosy; however, many if not most biblical commentaries reject this identification.
First of all, a physical illness must be attended to by a medical doctor, rather than a religious Kohen-Priest.
Secondly, the walls of a house cannot be affected by a physiological disease.
And thirdly, a physical plague spreads most rapidly in a crowded situation; however, no "lepers" were to be quarantined – even temporarily – in Jerusalem during the Pilgrim Festivals, precisely a time when streets overflowing with visitors would enable a physical plague to spread with wild abundance.
Hence, our Sages (most notably Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch) maintain that tzaraat was a spiritual malady, brought about by speaking or listening to slander. R
av Yisrael Salanter would often explain that the Biblical portion of Metzorah follows the biblical portion of Shmini – which concludes with the forbidden animals, birds and fish – in order to teach us that what comes out of our mouths results in far greater damage than what we put into our mouths!
Maimonides lists three forms of forbidden talk: Firstly, a rohel, someone who conveys words about someone else, going from one to another saying, 'so have I heard about so and so.' Even if the words are true and even if they are not negative, the talebearer is still considered as one who destroys the world. There is a much greater transgression than this, which is called evil speech (lashon hara); this occurs when one speaks in a derogatory fashion about someone else, even if what one says is true. And thirdly, one who spreads evil falsehoods about someone else is a motzi shem ra.
Maimonides adds that, "Such evil speech will result in the death of three individuals: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one whom about whom it is spoken. And the one who listens to it is worse than the one who propagates it" (Laws of Proper Ideas 7, 1-3).
From this perspective, how can we justify the publicity of the Fourth Estate, which so often judges events without even being certain of the facts? Perhaps such slanderous reporting ought to be prohibited!
I would maintain that a free press remains one of the glories of Israeli society and dare not be tampered with. Even Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (known as the Hafetz Hayim), who wrote an important work on the evils of slander, maintains that for the common good –for example, when one is asked about the suitability of a person for a marriage (a shidduch) – one must tell the entire truth, even if the report is a negative one.
Jewish tradition encourages everyone – from childhood on – to study our legal texts, because such studies create a socially unacceptable climate for legal infraction.
A dangerous culture of male, "macho" chauvinism and corruption seep into the highest echelons of our political and military elite; when such an evil spirit of acceptance of sexual harassment rears its ugly head, it is crucially important that our press step in and express public revulsion.
Obviously, they must do so responsibly – and hopefully the laws of libel protect the innocent from unfair attacks by the media.
It must be remembered, however, that fame and public office engenders added responsibility – not added privilege! One dare not turn on the public in whose adulation one basked the moment it displays its disappointment and disgust. Our society owes a vote of thanks to public media, one of whose tasks must be the safeguarding of morality in the most sacrosanct corridors of power and influence.
For Parshat Shmini:
"And Aaron was silent." ("Vayidom Aharon lev.") (10:3)
In the midst of the joyous celebration dedicating the desert Sanctuary fire came out from before the Lord and devoured Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, the High Priest. "And Moses said to Aaron, 'that is what the Lord has said, saying that through those closest to Me shall I be sanctified…'"(Lev.10:3). Rashi quotes the following words which the rabbis attribute to Moses:
"Moses said to Aaron, 'Aaron my brother, I know that this Temple Sanctuary will have to be sanctified by beloved friends of the Divine, and I thought that it would be either through you or through me. Now I see that they (Nadav and Avihu) were greater than both me and you'"….
According to this view, Nadav and Avihu were saintly individuals; worthy of being sacrificed on the altar of the desert Sanctuary, "VaYidom Aaron", and Aaron silently acquiesced to God's will. But why did the desert Sanctuary, and by extension any great advance of the Jewish nation, have to be dedicated by the deaths of great Jewish personalities? Why must the pages of our glorious history be drenched in the blood of holy martyrs and soaked by the tears of mourners they leave behind?
The only answer I can give to this agonizing question of lamah – why? – is the one word answer that our Israeli children like to give to our questions about why they do what they do, "kakha", that is how it is. Why must sacrifice be a necessary condition for redemption?
The pattern may be discerned as far back as the Covenant between the Pieces, in which God guarantees Abram eternal seed (Gen 15:1-6) and the land of Israel (15:7). After this, a great fear descends upon Abram as he is told that his seed will be strangers in a strange land where they will be afflicted and enslaved until they leave, freed and enriched. God then commands Abram to circumcise himself and his entire male household. The blood of the covenant is thus built into the very male organ of propagation (Gen 17); the price of our nationhood is blood, sacrifice and affliction.
At our Passover Seder, the celebration of our national birth, we retell the tale of our initial march from servitude to freedom in the words of the fully liberated Jew bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem: "My father, (Jacob), was almost destroyed by the Aramean (Laban), and he went down to Egypt, and he became there a great mighty and populous (rav) nation" (Deut 26:5). The author of the Passover Haggadah then explicates the text with the description presented by the prophet Ezekiel (16:7):
"I caused you to be populous (revavah) even as the vegetation of the field, and you did increase and grow up and you came to excellent beauty. Your breasts were fashioned and your hair was grown – yet you were naked and bare".
The Hebrews in Egypt were numerous and powerful, but empty and bare of merit, of true character and courage. To achieve this, they had to undergo the suffering of Egyptian enslavement, having their male babies cast into the Nile. They had to place their lives on the line by sacrificing the "god" of the Egyptians to the God of Israel and the world. They had to place the blood of this sacrifice on their doorposts and they had to undergo circumcision, to demonstrate their readiness to shed blood for freedom, for independence, and for their right to worship God in their own way.
With all of this in mind, the author of the Haggadah returns to Ezekiel (16:6): "And I passed over you, and I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I say to you by that blood shall you live (the blood of circumcision)." It is your willingness to sacrifice for your ideals that make you worthy of emulation, that made you a special and "chosen" people!
And so the author of the Haggadah then returns to Biblical description of Hebrew suffering in Egypt, a suffering which was meant to teach us to "love the other, the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Rabbi Yisrael Prager tells how a Nazi guard in the Vilna ghetto interrupted a secret nocturnal matzoh baking, causing the blood of the Jewish victims to mix with the dough of the baking matzot. The Rabbi cried out, "Behold we are prepared and ready to perform the commandment of the blood of the paschal sacrifice, the blood of the matzot which symbolize the paschal sacrifice!" As he concluded his blessing, his blood too was mixed with the baking matzot.
Lamah? Why such necessary sacrifice? Kakha, because so it is, because such is the inscrutable will of the Almighty. And "ashreiha'am she kakhah lo", happy is the nation that can say kakhah, happy is the nation which understands that its sacrifices are for the sake of the Almighty, for the purification of their nation, for the world message that freedom and the absolute value that every human being is created in God's image. And that these are values worth fighting for, values worth committing blood for. May it be God's will that we now begin our exit from enslavement and our entry into redemption, for us and the entire world.