I am writing this letter from the States. It must seem that I am anywhere than where I belong and want to be, Eretz Yisrael, whenever I write. It’s not exactly so: This year I divided my 2 trips into 4 to avoid being away weeks at a time. The result is that the planet feels a lot smaller.
Concepts like “far” and “near” are very fluid. If I make the mistake of leaving Har Nof at the 4:15pm rush hour to get to Netiv Binah, the Israeli sem that I teach at which is a half hour walk from Har Nof, I will spend almost as much time in transit as I would if I was going to Greece. Flying to the States takes 12 hours. Getting to the airport and passing security takes three….
Although the word “far” lost a lot of its geographic meaning, it hasn’t lost its emotional and ideological meaning.
This past week’s Parshah takes you there. The entire concept of tzoraas, a skin disorder that was the direct result of spiritual, not physical, illness is “far” from today’s reality. When someone is ill, they look to bacteria, virus or trauma. In earlier times, they were able to actually discover the spiritual cause of the Divine intervention that they experienced. Ramban tells us that you could actually visit your local navi (prophet) and he would diagnose the spiritual root of your illness, and tell you what changes you need to make in your life. Tzoraas didn’t even require a navi’s intervention. The parshah in the Torah describes the symptoms, the treatment, while the Oral law tells you the cause.
Speech is what makes us human - it’s also what makes us inhuman.
Tzoraas was caused by sins involving speech, and its root, arrogance. Your skin is the largest organ of your body. It protects and conceals your inner workings. The Hebrew word for skin is “or”. It has the same letters as the word “Iver” which means blind. Your skin covers all of the inner organs of your body, blinding you to its intricacy.
You can apply this concept to the way you interpret other people’s place in your life. Do you really see them, or do you just see their “outside’. You can externalize them, categorize them by ethnic group, age, appearance, financial status, number of the “toys” they own, etc. You see only skin deep, but you may not know it. This also may be the way you see yourself; you may think that you are your appearance, status, age, etc. and not know yourself to even ask what lies deeper.
The way you speak about yourself and others reveals what you think and feel. Lashon hara is halachicly defined as speech that is harmful or negative, but at least technically is true. It may be an accurate description of the outside, but it stops there. There are of course times when the outside information is needed, but I can’t think of any times when seeing the inside is meant to be ignored.
The symptoms of tzoraas include skin that is one of four possible shades of white. This implies Rav Hirsch says, that the way the person sees others dead and colorless, it is a perspective that excludes the your seeing the meaning and spiritual vitality that would bring color and uniqueness to the person you see. All you see is dead skin. In the ultimate sense human vitality isn’t just a function of the “outside”. Vitality is a mirror of the person’s integral human value, their “inside”. That’s the part of them that makes them real; it’s also the part that makes human life meaningful and human death tragic.
You can walk past people, see them, make judgments, and keep walking.
One of Yerushalaim’s treasures is Rebbitzen Gross. Many of you have seen her. She gets up every weekday morning and gets on the bus to kever Rachel, where she prays for the people on her long lists, as well as for the Jewish people in general. She returns and takes her “post”, near the nut store on Malchei Yisrael across from Uris pizza. She collects money which she later distributes to the poor. The octogenarian lady has a set amount that she has committed herself to collecting each day. When she reaches her goal, she returns home to her tiny apartment on Shivtei Yisrael. Her own income is from German reparations; from her perspective she lacks nothing. You may have seen her many times (as I did) and not seen more than an elderly beggar. I needed someone to open my mind to the fact that she has a life, and a meaningful one at that!
Not all unusual people have inspiring stories. Some have tragic ones.
Stories of mistakes and misjudgments that have left deep and sometimes indelible marks. Rav Elimeilech Biderman wrote about a conversation he had with a man who he had seen many times in Meiron. The older fellow spends his life just sort of being there, and often is inebriated. He was (according to his own description) never the brightest, the best looking, or the most interesting person. At a relatively advanced age, he found a woman much like himself. The plan was for them to marry, and live a quiet unassuming life together. One of her “friends” had a heart to heart talk with her two weeks before the date of the wedding. “Is this what you waited for?” she asked. She forced her to look more at the outside, and succeeded. She convinced her friend to break the engagement. Her groom-to-be accepted the lashon hara about him as being true! He is as close to dead as you can be when you are still alive.
Here in the States, the outside is the image that society sells with almost unbelievable dedication. You are what you own, what you look like, what you think you “deserve”. My son works in a frum boy’s school. They have to put so much effort to get the kids to see themselves and others more clearly. One of the things that he does is to put out put out a student newsletter every week. The kids have to (anonymously) write something true positive about each and every other child in the class. When a child’s name is chosen to be the “Boy of the Week” he gets his picture in the paper along with bio written by the teacher, but made up of the words written by his friends. He learns to see himself (and by writing about others) that there is more to life that what is skin deep.
BEH next letter will come from Israel.