Tazria Mezora: Judging from past behavior

A penitent is not to be treated the same as a sinner.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Judaism Scribe writes a Torah scroll
Scribe writes a Torah scroll
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Past behavior is often a harbinger of the future, but to judge fairly we must consider the very latest episode of the past behavior. I was once at a wedding, where the groom’s elderly venerated teacher danced with vigor and joy, and his many students, their eyes sparkling with admiration and love, joined in. I was standing there admiring the great man, when someone told me not to be so impressed because when he was a teenager, he used to flirt with the girls on the street.

I remember that it changed my entire perspective of the man, but of course I was wrong. His past behavior wasn’t comprised only of indiscretions. He had obviously turned over a new leaf, devoted his life to studying and teaching. He was now a venerated and admired teacher; no longer the shallow teenager who flirted on the streets. Indeed, that was part of his past, but so was his changed attitude. Why would I judge him on only his negative past behavior and not on his positive past behavior?

Our sages taught that when a defendant is brought before the court, the judge must view him in a negative light. But once the verdict is issued, they must shift their attitude and view him as righteous for surely the defendant accepted the verdict, acknowledged his guilt and submitted to his punishment. Now, his past is in the past, and he is about to chart a new course for the future. If anything, that makes him a better person. Had he never sinned, he would have been righteous. Now that he sinned and had to dig deep to repent, he discovered an inner depth that non-penitents rarely access.

Selling His Soul
A story is told about a poor Jew who asked his rabbi to help him with the costs of his child’s wedding. The rabbi gave the Jew a single ruble and told him to accept the first business proposition that came his way. On his way home, he met a group of traveling merchants who were tipsy with wine. One of the merchants, seeking some entertainment, asked him if he was in business and if he was buying anything.

The Jew replied that he had only one ruble but would buy anything the merchant was willing to sell. The merchant, who was also Jewish, replied, well, for one ruble, all I can sell is my share in the world to come. The Jew agreed, and the deal was struck. The merchants returned to their merrymaking and had a good laugh. However, when the merchant arrived home and told his wife about his transaction, she failed to see the humor, and insisted that he track down the buyer and buy back his share.

The wealthy merchant tracked down the Jew, who was more than willing to sell back the share, but only for a sum that would pay for his child’s wedding. The merchant was taken aback at the astronomical sum. After all, this was just a silly game and he was buying it back only out of respect for his wife. Why should he pay so many thousands of rubles? This was highway robbery!

The Jew insisted that it was his rabbi’s idea and would not budge. The merchant decided to travel to the rabbi and knock some sense into him. The rabbi, however, agreed with his pupil and told the merchant that fair was fair. If he wanted to buy back his share, he would need to pay the requested sum. Knowing that his wife would be satisfied with nothing less than a full purchase, the wealthy merchant paid the entire sum.

Now we get to the important part of the story: The wealthy merchant turned to the rabbi and said, so tell me rabbi, how much is my soul worth, the single lousy ruble for which your pupil bought it or the exorbitant sum that I am forced to pay for it? Who is getting the better end of the deal?

You are getting the better end, the rabbi replied. And proceeded to explain. When you sold your soul, it wasn’t even worth a single ruble. At that point, you got the better end of the deal, having received much more than your soul was worth at the time. But now that you have gone to such lengths to re-acquire it, it is worth much more than you are paying for it. Once again, you are getting the better end of the deal.

The moral of the story is that we don’t judge a person on their negative past behavior. We judge them on their most recent positive behavior. The merchant’s soul wasn’t worth a single ruble when he sold it, but the merchant who sold it was not the merchant who purchased it. At this point, his soul was worth a fortune. He was a new person and deserved to be seen in an entirely new light.

This helps us understand an interesting Talmudic passage about the metzora, the Jew who contracted a biblical skin disease called tzara’as. The Talmud tells us that tzara’as is a punishment for one of seven sins. In biblical times, one who was guilty of gossip, murder, theft, arrogance, swearing in vain promiscuity or stinginess, was afflicted with tzara’as.

This tells us that the metzora is a sinner. Yet, there is a discrepancy. In the Temple, most offerings were brought along with libations of wine. The Talmud tells us that this doesn’t pertain to sin offerings and guilt offerings. Our sages explained that by rights the sinner should not be spared the expense of the libation since sin should not be rewarded. But the sinner is barred from offering a libation to make his offering appear plain and force him to acknowledge his sin.

Yet the Talmud tells us that the metzora’s sin and guilt offerings were accompanied by libations. Our sages asked why this is so, is the metzorah not a sinner?

They explained that the metzorah was a sinner, but he had already received his punishment in the form of tzara’as. The offerings were brought only after the tzara’as had receded. Thus, the metzora was no longer regarded as a sinner. There was surely sin in his past behavior, but that sin was not his most recent past behavior. His most recent episode was his punishment, which he presumably accepted, and which presumably caused him to repent. Now, he is no longer a sinner. Now, he is a penitent.

Now that he is bringing a three-part offering, a burned offering, a sin offering and a guilt offering, his soul is worth much more than he is paying for it.

In conclusion: We do judge people on their past behavior, but only on their most recent past behavior.