Metzora: Overstepping Bounds

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      We have discussed more than once now how tum’ah and tahara denote, symbolically or otherwise, degrees of death and life respectively, which, when “zoomed in” further, denote degrees of “unfreedom” and freedom respectively. Now we encounter individuals, clothing and houses stricken with a נגע, becoming tamei. According to our reasoning, perhaps it would, at first glance, make sense for slaves, and their clothing and houses, to be stricken this way; but that is clearly not what is going on.

      Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan[1] that these נגעים come for seven reasons: lashon hara (gossip/slander), bloodshed, empty oaths, forbidden sexual relations, arrogance, theft and stinginess. When Amoraim list reasons like this, we would be remiss if we considered them arbitrary; there must be something that they have in common.

      Regarding lashon hara, Reish Lakish is the one who says the word מצרע itself stands for מוציא שם רע[2]; this is the person who oversteps his bounds in terms of what is appropriate to discuss. This overstepping of bounds is particularly conspicuous in one of the most common applications of lashon hara: undermining a person’s credibility in order to encroach on an area of his competence.

      Regarding bloodshed, our Amoraim—i.e. Rabbi Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan—point us to King David cursing out Yoav after the latter, for no good reason at all, kills Avner; among the curses with which David heaps Yoav’s family[3] is צרעת. Yoav is perhaps an illustration of a military leader, “licensed to kill,” getting used to the idea, feeling as if he has been given carte blanche to kill anybody inconvenient for him—and this is him overstepping his bounds.

      Regarding empty oaths, our Amoraim give the example of Gehazi[4]. There is a verse[5] where it can be construed that Naaman has Gehazi swear an oath—which of course is false. Gehazi clearly oversteps his bounds, lying to Naaman for personal gain in a way that diminishes the whole meaning of what happened, at a time when he is just the servant of Elisha. “Is this a time to receive money?” asks Elisha[6]. Gehazi is then stricken. (Incidentally, perhaps Naaman was stricken because he only won wars due to God’s intervention, yet accepted personal honors for his victories from his king, which could be classed as his own overstepping of bounds.)

      Regarding forbidden sexual relations, our Amoraim take us to the very first instance of the word נגע in the Torah—when the Pharaoh takes Sarai, not realizing that she is Avraham’s wife[7]. There, of course, the Pharaoh oversteps his bounds, encroaching upon the family of another man.

      Regarding arrogance, our Amoraim take us to King Uzziahu, when he wants to burn incense in the Temple—something only a kohen is authorized to do[8]. Again, this is a very clear case of overstepping one’s bounds, and when he is stricken, it plays a dual role, as that also completely disqualifies him from entering the Temple.

      Regarding theft and stinginess, we are taken to midrashim about our parashah. When it comes to a house being stricken, one of the midrashim is that this is in response to theft and stinginess—because the first thing prescribed for such a situation is to empty all the contents of the house[9][10]. Theft, of course, is a very clear overstepping of one’s bounds; there is no excuse for appropriating the property of another. Stinginess, on the other hand, is overstepping one’s bounds somewhat like our speculation about Naaman: what we have, we have because God gave it to us; to be stingy with it is to ignore this fact.

      We feel that we should bring up two further instances, not mentioned in Arachin: the first, when Moshe says that the Jews will not believe him[11] and one of the signs he is given is his hand being stricken[12], he oversteps his bounds to tell God how the Jewish people will respond to him; the second, when Miriam is stricken[13], the bounds she oversteps are comparing herself and Aharon to Moshe in the way they are talked to by God.

      We are by far not the only ones to observe this consistent pattern. צרעת, writes Pinchas Polonsky[14], “is a very noticeable sign. One wanted to stand out—and so he received a mark [that makes him stand out].” He then points out that no matter how obvious the mark, the afflicted does not become tamei until and unless he goes to a kohen and the kohen declares him so. “Such dealing with a kohen is the beginning of the establishment of subordination”—i.e. of staying within one’s bounds. Rav S.R. Hirsch, along similar lines, points out that one with an afflicted house, according to Vayikra 14:35, must tell the kohen that “it appears to me that something like a נגע is in my house.” He cannot passkin on his own. “The Torah here,” writes Rav Hirsch, “teaches us proper conduct—that one must conduct himself with humility.”

      Our world is full of overstepping bounds, on a large scale. Vladimir Putin, along with many enthusiastic Russians, is in obvious violation of the sovereignty of another nation as we speak. But in our freer nations too, bounds are overstepped all the time. The most salient—the primary spiritual illness of our era in the West—is the way citizens en masse feel entitled to the property of others, and feel comfortable talking about it as if it were their own. For example, the belief that “healthcare is a human right” directly entails that one is either entitled to enslave doctors to treat him (it is his “right” after all) or to take the money of others to pay for his healthcare. Both would be overstepping one’s bounds, appropriating to oneself another’s life or property.

      Another great example in 2021 was a banner on the corner of 181st St and Fort Washington Ave in Manhattan. “#CancelRent” the banner said. “@NYCGovCuomo: We need Rent, Mortgage and Utility Suspension Now!” Cancelling rent means living on another person’s property, after having made an agreement, but refusing to keep one’s end of it; cancelling mortgage means borrowing money, promising to return it, and then reneging; cancelling utility payments means stealing oil, gas and electricity. The first two are closely related to breaking an oath, and the last is a most basic form of theft. The fact that a sizable chunk of our population is comfortable with this behavior is a sign of our times; the fact that, as per the banner, many of those are primarily concerned with using government to force the people on the other end of their deals to continue giving is another. The fact that this all seems so normal shows the depth of the spiritual illness.

      When our parashah describes dealing with stricken people, the primary factor appears to be tum’ah; and when it describes how they look, the sunken whiteness resembles a corpse. When we overstep our bounds, this is not life. Treating others properly—in particular, understanding boundaries and not encroaching improperly on the lives of others—is a key component of living.

      Why do we not see signs of צרעת all around? Rabbi Eli Silberstein of Ithaca, NY, offers one potential explanation. The first puff of a cigarette is one that the body typically rejects; a coughing fit ensues. But a habitual smoker inhales the smoke smoothly, with no trouble[15]. We must reach a certain level before our bodies reject these behaviors, and we are not there. This should remind us to have a significant level of respect for a מצורע who comes to a kohen and goes through the process of rehabilitation.

      Our parashah gives extensive instructions for the rehabilitation of somebody who runs into these issues. It involves a temporary separation from society, as well as some opposites—a dead bird and a live, free bird; the tiny אזוב and the giant cedar—and korbanot. We do not want this post to go on forever, but we highly recommend reading this week’s parashah carefully and trying to “decode” the treatment for our society’s ailments.

      In the regular Shabbos musaf service, we ask God to return us to the land of Israel, and then we add the words ותטענו בגבולנו—“and that you plant us within our boundaries.” This could be seen as just a request for us to sprout roots within our country again—and it is that. In our discussion of Yosef HaTzadik, we, somewhat relatedly, talked about staying within our boundaries in terms of our political activism—within the literal borders of the land of our people—and how disastrous the Jews’ excursions into the politics of other nations have been. We can also see this as a request that we stay within our boundaries in every way—that we all heed the warning that צרעת was designed to present to us.

      [1] Arachin 16a
      [2] ibid. 15b
      [3] Shmuel II 3:29
      [4] The story of Naaman and Gehazi is recounted in Melachim II 5
      [5] Melachim II 5:23
      [6] v. 26
      [7] Incidentally, the next appearance of the root נגע in the Torah is when God speaks to Avimelech after he takes Sarah, not realizing that she is Avraham’s wife; and the following instance is the proclamation Avimelech gives when Yitzchak gets into a similar situation with Rivkah.
      [8] This incident is recorded in the second half of Divrei Hayamim 26
      [9] It should be noted that the pshat is that this is not a punishment at all; it is so that if the house is declared tamei, the contents are not rendered tamei.
      [10] We should also note a beautiful midrash that the Canaanites hid treasures in the walls of the houses, and houses were stricken so that those treasures could be discovered. Not taken literally, it serves as an important reminder that the “bad” things that happen to us can be for our own good in very unexpected ways.
      [11] Shmot 4:1
      [12] ibid. v. 6
      [13] Bamidbar 12
      [14] Bible Dynamics, not yet available in English
      [15] Of course, the bodily damage continues—in fact, more severely; but it does not again become noticeable until it is far too late.

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