Parashat Tazria - The Eyes of the Priest
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | ה אייר התשעח | 20.04.2018
אדר שני תשע"ד
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
The Eyes of the Priest
The Hour of Defilement
The Torah repeats several times that lesions of leprosy defile a person or a house only after the Cohen has seen them first and pronounced them impure. That is to say, when one sees a nega (lesion) on his body or in his house, he or it does not become officially "leprous" until the priest sees it and pronounces it so. Neither does the leprosy then take effect retroactively.
Let us look at three examples, beginning with this verse from Parashat Tazria:
וּבְיוֹם הֵרָאוֹת בּוֹ בָּשָׂר חַי יִטְמָא
On the day that live flesh is seen upon it, he becomes impure (Vayikra 13,14)
Our Sages derived from the words on the day that there are days that one who finds a nega on his body need not go to the priest, and may instead remain pure. For instance, a bridegroom who finds a nega is permitted to wait until after the seven days of his wedding festivities. Similarly, anyone who finds a nega during a festival may wait until after the holiday has passed.
A second example is this:
וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וּפִנּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע,
וְלֹא יִטְמָא כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת, וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת
At the priest's command, the house is emptied before he comes to see the nega
in order that everything in the house shall not be defiled;
and afterwards the priest will come to see the house. (14,36)
Here the Torah itself gives us an idea how we may postpone the onset of impurity in a house: simply by postponing the priest's visit until after the utensils are removed from the potentially-impure building. The priest can then arrive and declare the house impure if necessary – but the utensils have been saved from impurity and, in the case of pottery, from having to be smashed.
A final example comes from the Mishna (Nega'im 2,3), which states that in a dark house, additional light need not be added in order for the priest to observe the nega and pronounce it leprous. This means that a dark basement with moldy walls can never be declared impure.
All of the above indicates that the impurity of lesions, and the time it takes effect, is totally dependent on the Cohen seeing them; until then, the lesions as if do not exist. This requires explanation. Can we make the nega disappear simply by ignoring it? If we turn off the lights and don't see stains on the floor, can we declare the house clean? Is a person not ill until the doctor declares him so?!
Other forms of impurity do not at all work this way, but rather take effect immediately. For instance, a basket holding a reptile becomes impure the instant the reptile dies. What logic governs the special impurity of leprous nega'im that makes it dependent on the outside element of a priest's observation and declaration?
The very fact that we call a priest, and not a doctor, to treat a nega shows that the problem is of a spiritual nature, not physical. A doctor's function is to treat physical or psychological sicknesses, while the priest deals with spiritual and character weakness.
The leprous nega is an external sign of an inner sin – and the Torah thus warns:
הִשָּׁמֶר בְּנֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד וְלַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּ אֶתְכֶם הַכֹּהֲנִים
Take great care regarding the leprous signs,
to carefully keep and perform all that the priests command you. (Dvarim 24,8)
The Torah is most insistent that one may not cut off or remove the nega without showing it to the priest – for this would mean eliminating the symptom without treating the sickness. Just like one should not take pain-killers without trying to treat the source of the pain, we may not remove the external indications without dealing with the inner moral and spiritual problems that they symbolize.
On the other hand, these spiritual issues are not officially recognized until the "patient" meets the Cohen. What does this meeting accomplish?
Let us note that our view of that which we experience is quite relative, as are all our sensations. A driver going 100 kilometers per hour and watching the trees on the side of the road whiz by him, will feel himself going very fast. But when we sit on a couch in our living room, we don't sense that we are moving at all – even though the Earth is actually traveling 109,000 kilometers per hour, more than 100 times as fast as the car! This is because there are no stationary objects around us by which we can measure, or feel, our own speed.
Another example: When we dip a finger from our right hand into hot water, and then immediately place it into lukewarm water, the water will feel cold. Let us then dip a finger from our left hand into cold water, then place it into lukewarm water – and the water will feel warm. If we do both actions at the same time, one finger will feel warm and the other one will be cold – both in the same water!
The ramifications for our case are that a person with a nega does not objectively feel his spiritual shortcomings until the Priest stands before him with his eyes of purity (as we will explain below) and identifies them for him. The encounter with the pure eyes of Hashem's emissary emphasizes for the afflicted person his own spiritual "ugliness." It is likely that he will now receive an extension of seven days in isolated confinement, if the Priest so decides, during which he can think about his deeds and repent of his misconduct. It is this very meeting between the Cohen and the sinner and his nega, that provides the impetus for the necessary teshuvah (repentance). This explains why the nega does not become impure before this occurs.
Arrogance and Haughtiness
What are the sins that lead to leprosy and nega'im? The Gmara (Arachin 16a) lists seven such sins:
- Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Nega'im come because of seven things: 1. Slander 2. Murder 3. False oaths 4. Incest 5. Haughtiness 6. Theft 7. Stinginess
From this entire list, one sin is actually the primary cause of all the others. To find it, we must search the entire Bible for clear sources linking that sin with the punishment of nega'im – and such a source is found in Chronicles II. It tells how Uziyahu, the King of Judea, insisted on bringing incense in the Holy Temple, despite the opposition of the High Priest and 80 priests standing before him:
וּכְחֶזְקָתוֹ גָּבַהּ לִבּוֹ עַד לְהַשְׁחִית, וַיִּמְעַל בַּי-הוה אֱ-לֹהָיו
וַיָּבֹא אֶל הֵיכַל י-הוה לְהַקְטִיר עַל מִזְבַּח הַקְּטֹרֶת.
And as he became strong, he became haughty to the point of corruption,
and he trespassed against the Lord his G-d,
and he came into the Temple of G-d to burn incense on the altar of incense.
וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ... צֵא מִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ כִּי מָעַלְתָּ... וַיִּזְעַף עֻזִּיָּהוּ...
וְהַצָּרַעַת זָרְחָה בְמִצְחוֹ לִפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּבֵית י-הוה...
Azariah the Priest and the 80 priests said to him, "It is not for you to burn incense to Hashem, but for the priests… Leave the Sanctuary, for you have trespassed."
And Uziyah became furious…
the leprosy shone upon his forehead before the priests in the House of G-d.
וַיַּבְהִלוּהוּ מִשָּׁם וְגַם הוּא נִדְחַף לָצֵאת כִּי נִגְּעוֹ י-הוה. וַיְהִי עֻזִּיָּהוּ הַמֶּלֶךְ מְצֹרָע עַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ.
…They rushed him out of there, and he too hastened to leave, for G-d had smitten him; Uziyah the King was thus stricken with leprosy until the day of his death. (26,16-21)
It is evident from this incident that haughty arrogance is the primary of leprosy. Similarly, the other sources brought by the Gmara linking between the above seven sins and leprosy indicate that the root of them all is "pride." For instance: In Parashat B'haalot'cha, we read that Miriam the Prophetess and Aharon the High Priest were murmuring to each other about their brother Moshe:
וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח,
וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר י-הוה?! הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר!
Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe, regarding the Cushite woman he had married. They said: "Did G-d speak only to Moshe? He spoke to us as well!" (Bamidbar 12,1-2)
It is not clear exactly what they said about "the Cushite woman," but it is apparent that they were speaking lashon hara, for G-d said to them: "Why did you not fear to speak [this way] about my servant, about Moshe?" (verse 8).
It is similarly obvious that they would never have spoken this way had they not felt that their prophecy was equal to that of Moshe – as they themselves said: "G-d spoke to us as well!" – surely an expression of surplus pride. And as if to emphasize that this sin was the result of their feelings of overconfidence, the Torah immediately emphasizes, in apparent contrast with them, Moshe's humility:
וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָיו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
The man Moshe was very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth. (verse 3)
G-d's response to Aharon and Miriam shows that their sin was based on their mistaken, self-righteous thought that they were prophets on the same level as Moshe:
וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי. אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם, י-הוה, בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ. לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה... פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת...
Hashem said, "Hear, please, My words.
If there be prophets among you, I, G-d, will make Myself known to him in a vision,
I will speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moshe…
Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a vision and not in riddles." (verses 5-8)
And the next thing we see is that Miriam is stricken with leprosy:
וְהֶעָנָן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג
The cloud departed from over the Tent, and behold,
Miriam was leprous, white as snow. (verse 10)
In short, the lashon hara that brought about the leprosy was itself was the result of over-confidence and pride.
And another example of leprosy in the Torah is the sign that Hashem gave Moshe at the site of the Burning Bush. G-d was assigning him the mission to redeem Israel, but Moshe's response indicated a small measure of self-righteousness: They will not believe me (Shmot 4,1) – as if to say that he himself is a great believer, but the People of Israel are not. The near-immediate result was a "sign" to show Bnei Yisrael: His arm was afflicted with leprosy.
Though the Torah does not specify outright that this was Moshe's sin, our Sages in the Talmud (Tr. Shabbat 97a) taught, allegorically, that Hashem answered him in this vein: "The Children of Israel are believers, sons of believers – but you yourself will end up not believing [when commanded to speak to the rock]."
Assuming that the pride is the root of leprosy, the leper's punishment is appropriate:
בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ
He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Vayikra 13,46)
His arrogance must be humbled. He will be restricted to a place where he will have no one to brag to, nor anyone to try to one-up.
The ugliness of the sin of arrogance and pride is uncovered and revealed before the pure eyes of the priest. What truly makes the Cohen so special? The clearest description of the ideal Cohen is found in the words of the Prophet Malachi:
תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת הָיְתָה בְּפִיהוּ, וְעַוְלָה לֹא נִמְצָא בִשְׂפָתָיו.
בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְמִישׁוֹר הָלַךְ אִתִּי, וְרַבִּים הֵשִׁיב מֵעָוֹן.
True teaching was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips.
In peace and equity he walked with Me, and he brought back many from sin.
כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ, כִּי מַלְאַךְ י-הוה צְבָאוֹת הוּא
A priest's lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching will be sought from his mouth,
for he is an angel of the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 2,6-7)
The last phrase says it all. The priest knows that he is an angel, or emissary, of G-d Himself, and all of his talents, skills and authority were granted him only so that he could fulfill this mission. This is the true humility, the opposite of arrogance of which we have been speaking.
This then leads to the "true teaching in his mouth," as well as his "walking in peace" and his ability to "return many people from their sinful ways." It is from this position of humbleness and modesty that the lofty Priestly Blessing rises up with munificence and whole-heartedness to bless the Children of Israel. It is before these holy priestly eyes that the ugliness of a man's sin shows up in high contrast – and the moment the priest declares "impurity," the defilement takes effect, isolation starts, and teshuvah must begin.
The Dark House
We quoted the Mishna above that states that additional light need not be added to a dark house in order for the priest to observe the nega. This means that even if a nega is suspected, there can be no impurity as long as there is no light. Why would Hashem place a nega of leprosy in such a house, if it will never be recognized as such?
The answer is: Precisely in order that a dark house should remain dark. This is the essence of a concept taught by R. Elazar in the Talmud: "One must always remain obscure and live (Sanhedrin 92a)." It is good to remain in the shadows, R. Elazar says. When a person assumes a position of prominence, he finds himself under the scrutiny of many pairs of eyes, carefully checking his every move. As a result, many faults that would otherwise have gone undetected can be expected to show up.
An example of this is King Sha'ul. Before being chosen as King of Israel, he was "hidden among the baggage" (Shmuel I 10,22), i.e., unassuming and barely noticeable. This was a very admirable trait at first, but once he became king, it actually worked against him. During his war against Amalek, when he failed to kill Amalek's king or cattle, his inability to stand up to the people was revealed – as he himself admitted: "For I was afraid of the nation, and I adhered to their call" (15,24).
The Prophet Shmuel sharply rebuked him precisely on this point: "Even if you are small in your own eyes, you are the head of the Tribes of Israel!" (verse 17).
The sharp blatancy of sin when it appears on the backdrop of purity and holiness was precisely the point made by the Tsidonite woman against her tenant, Eliyahu HaNavi:
חָלָה בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה בַּעֲלַת הַבָּיִת, וַיְהִי חָלְיוֹ חָזָק מְאֹד עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא נוֹתְרָה בּוֹ נְשָׁמָה. וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵלִיָּהוּ, מַה לִּי וָלָךְ אִישׁ הָאֱ-לֹהִים. בָּאתָ אֵלַי לְהַזְכִּיר אֶת עֲוֹנִי וּלְהָמִית אֶת בְּנִי!
…The home-owner's son took ill - so strongly ill that his soul did not remain.
She said to Eliyahu: "What have I to do with you, man of G-d?
Have you come to me to bring up my sin and kill my son?" (Kings 1 17,17-18)
The woman is complaining that Eliyahu's very presence in her home makes the stain of her sins all too blatant, thus bringing on the punishment of her son's death. This principle also explains the following difficult Mishna:
On Rosh HaShanah, all pass before G-d as members of a flock, as is written (Psalms 33,15), "He Who creates their hearts together, and understands all their deeds." (Rosh HaShanah 16a)
On the day of the New Year, every individual is judged on his own, just as sheep in a flock leave the pen one by one. But the verse brought by the Mishna as proof seems to imply the opposite – that G-d creates all people, and understands and judges their thoughts and deeds all together as one!
To intensify the question, R. Yochanan is quoted in the Gmara as saying that all people undergo one simultaneous review – kulam niskarim b'skirah achat! So which is it: Are we judged individually, or all together?
The answer is that everyone is judged twice. A man is judged once by himself for his own deeds and misdeeds, and a second time on the backdrop of his surroundings. One who lives amidst wicked people is not judged the same way as one who lives with righteous neighbors. The second time, his background is highlighted, and is justly taken into account in order to clarify the reasons that may have led him to act the way he did, for better or for worse.
When one lives amidst holiness and righteousness but does not learn from his neighbors, his sin takes on extra severity. But if one lives among wicked people yet manages to remain free of their influence, his good deeds are even more valuable than "regular" mitzvot!
Living Alongside a Tzaddik
The above, implying that being in the company of the righteous raises the standards to which we are held, appears to contradict this Talmudic teaching (Brachot, p. 42a):
Abaye said: We can also say that blessing comes to he who welcomes Torah scholars, as is written, "G-d blessed me [Lavan] because of you [Yaakov]" and "G-d blessed the Egyptian's house for Yosef" (B'reshit 30,27 and 39,5).
These verses show that when G-d blesses a Torah scholar or righteous person, he also blesses those who host and help him. This is what happened to Yaakov's uncle Lavan the Aramean who took Yaakov into his household, to Potiphar when he took in Yosef, and to the Tsidonite woman when she brought Eliyahu into her home:
כִּי כֹה אָמַר י-הוה אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כַּד הַקֶּמַח לֹא תִכְלָה וְצַפַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶן לֹא תֶחְסָר
עַד יוֹם תֵּת י-הוה גֶּשֶׁם עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
For so said G-d: [Your] jug of flour will not run out, and the small jar of oil
will never run dry, until G-d gives rain on the face of the earth. (Kings I 17,14)
Why, then, was she also punished with the near-death of her son? The answer is that regarding Lavan and Potiphar, G-d granted blessing – but here, with Eliyahu, Hashem granted an ongoing miracle. To maintain the high level of this ongoing miracle, extra special righteousness is required – which the Tsidonite woman did not have.
Let us return to the Cohen and his interaction with other Jews. The ideal encounter between the Priest and the Israelite is that between a "give" and a "receiver." The Priest receives terumah (priestly tithes), and grants blessing to the home-owner and teaches Torah to him and his household. When this does not happen, however, the way is paved for another type of Cohen-Israelite encounter: the difficult and torturous situation in which the Cohen meets a leper afflicted with sins. As the Sages teach:
G-d said: "I instructed you to give gifts to the priest from your produce, but you did not do so, and as a result, I will give you reason to need the priest" – a nega. (Medrash Rabba Tazria 6)
The natural order of things is as described in the Book of Yechezkel:
...וְרֵאשִׁית עֲרִסוֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַכֹּהֵן לְהָנִיחַ בְּרָכָה אֶל בֵּיתֶךָ
The first of your dough you shall give the Cohen,
in order to place blessing upon your home. (44,30)
--- and then there will be no need for the Cohen to come to your home to check leprous nega'im.