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by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the Torah lists four items which are used in the purification process of a metzorah (one who has been afflicted by the spiritual skin malady called tzaraat).



At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the Torah lists four items which are used in the purification process of a metzorah (one who has been afflicted by the spiritual skin malady called tzaraat). The list consists of a pair of birds, a rod of cedar wood, a piece of wool dyed red with dye extracted from a worm, and a branch of hyssop. Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, explains that each of the four items is symbolic of the metzorah's sin of lashon harah (evil speech or slander) and the path that he should take to repent. The birds, which constantly chirp, represent the slanderous chattering which brought about this malady. The tall and impressive cedar tree from which the cedar rod is taken corresponds to haughtiness. Tzaraat, says Rashi, comes because of this vice. The wool dyed from worms and the short hyssop bush indicate to the metzorah how he can rectify his condition, by lowering himself from his arrogance, imitating these lowly beings.

Rashi's words are somewhat puzzling. At first he states that tzaraat is a result of slander and immediately afterwards he blames haughtiness as the culprit for the existence of this skin condition. Furthermore, if the worm and hyssop represent acting humbly in response to the haughtiness, what is suggested to avoid the slander? The apparent answer to both of these questions is that while tzaraat is a product of slander, slander itself is a product of haughtiness. It is ego-preservation that motivates a person to put down his fellow man, helping the speaker to delude himself into a sense of security. Therefore, the way to avoid both haughtiness and slander is to lower oneself, to get himself out of this egocentric mindset.

The Passover story, in many ways, illustrates how slander and haughtiness go hand in hand. After Moses slays the oppressive Egyptian taskmaster, Datan and Aviram (two dedicated enemies of Moses) threaten to tell Pharaoh of the event. (Please see Exodus 2:11-14 for more details on this episode.) Moses then states, "Indeed, the matter is known" (ibid). On a simple level, Moses is just stating that his murderous act has been discovered. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi), reading beneath the surface, understands the verse as saying, "Indeed, now it is known why the Jewish people, of all the other nations, deserved such harsh labor. It is because they have in their midst people who are capable of speaking such evil and slander. The evil speech which emanated from the mouths of the Jewish people was a reason (if not the main reason) for our enslavement in Egypt."

When Pharaoh decreed that all the male Jewish babies should be cast into the Nile, Amram, the eventual father of Moses, separated from his wife, afraid to have children who would be immediately killed. Many other Jewish men followed the example set by this well-respected individual. The Talmud relates that Miriam, the daughter of Amram, pointed out to her father, "Your decree is more harsh than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh's decree only affects the males. Your decree is upon the females too." Miriam, according to calculations based upon other verses in the Torah, could not have been more than five years old at the time, but Amram, with a great act of humility, admitted his error and reunited with his wife. Soon afterwards, Moses was born. It is interesting to note that Amram's act of humility brought about Moses, the humblest of all men, who was the person who brought about the redemption. Thus, evil speech was the fuel for the enslavement while humility was the catalyst to end it.


Rabbi Elie Cohen, who grew up in Atlanta, is currently studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

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