“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”
This week’s Parsha, Tazria-Metsora, has an interesting bit of symbolism. First of all, a word about leprosy. In the Torah, as well as according to later rabbinic commentary, leprosy is thought to be a punishment for arrogance and lashon harah, the evil tongue. It is within this framework that Rashi and other commentators consider the symbolism of the materials used in the sacrifice and the prescribed ritual for purifying the leper. In Vayikra 14:4, it reads:
Then shall the priest command to take for the person to be cleansed two living clean birds, and cedarwood, a scarlet thread, and hyssop.
What is the significance of these ritual ingredients? I’m not going to address the birds – that is the meat part of the sacrifice which is probably there as much for the priests’ consumption as for the leper. The rest of the ingredients each have to do with the theme of haughtiness and humility.
“Shni tola’at” (translated as scarlet thread) is a strange term having to do with a snail or a worm (which is what tola’at means). In this context, we think the phrase refers to a thread dyed from a snail. What’s so special about a snail (other than the color of the ink it produces)? The snail shrinks itself into its shell, an action that demonstrates humility. Likewise, the hyssop is a low bush that bends, and is therefore also a symbol of humility. How does this relate to the leper? Presumably these ingredients remind the leper to act humbly because his crime was related to the opposite of humility, namely arrogance. As Rashi remarked:
The plague came as a punishment for arrogance. What is the remedy he shall use in order to be healed? Let him, abandoning arrogance, regard himself as lowly as a worm and as hyssop.
This is where the wood of the cedar tree comes in. The Ramban explains that the cedar tree is very tall, wide and imposing. The presence of the cedarwood is to remind the Metzora that because of his self-importance, he considered himself above others and felt justified in speaking lashon hara. That same pride resulted in his missing the warning signs that something was wrong with his behavior, and led as well (according to the rabbinic understanding) to his skin disease, and ultimately to being cast out by his community (i.e., what happened to lepers in the bible).
Interestingly, the Baal Shem Tov had a completely opposite interpretation of the cedarwood, which I find fascinating. He agreed that cedarwood symbolizes pride, but he believed its use in the ceremony is not to remind the leper of her sin of pride, but rather to remind her to maintain her self-respect. According to this thinking, humility and submission do not mean that the body must be bowed down. Rather, inner spiritual humility can be present even while the body stands erect and unbowed. The Baal Shem Tov explained it saying, “And all that stands before thee shall bow – one can bow even while one appears to be standing erect.” The cedarwood is used to teach the sinner that she need not think she is required to go about bent over and cringing in abject humility. She can stand erect as a cedar and still be as “bent” and humble in spirit as hyssop.
So what does this all have to do with our work at MWJDS? It seems to me that finding the proper balance between a posture of pride and one of humility is very important, albeit often difficult. If we allow the difficulties that beset us to weigh us down, bending our spirit to dangerously low points, we can become so despondent that we question why we’re doing what we are doing. On the other hand, if we think we have all the answers, if we fail to keep our eyes open for other ways of thinking, doing and in our case teaching, then we run the risk that our haughtiness will get in the way of real progress. It may not cause leprosy, but I have had my share of rashes likely exacerbated by stress, so maybe it is not such a crazy notion. For me, finding balance, not only in what I am doing but in what I’m feeling about what I’m doing, seems an important lesson.
– Rav-Hazzan Scott M. Sokol, PhD
Head of School