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WARNING SIGNS

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

It was a hot summer day, and Avi was enjoying the breeze blowing through the windows of his sports car. As he drove along, he kept a careful eye on the temperature gauge.

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It was a hot summer day, and Avi was enjoying the breeze blowing through the windows of his sports car. As he drove along, he kept a careful eye on the temperature gauge. Nevertheless, when the needle began pointing into the red zone, he disregarded its warning, thinking that this was no day to be inconvenienced by an overheated car. He decided that the gauge must be incorrect and he drove onward. A short time later, the needle reached the top of the scale and smoke began rising from around the hood. Again, Avi was in no mood for such distractions, so he kept driving, ignoring the problem entirely. Finally, the hood burst into flames, at which point Avi decided that he'd better pull over and find out what's wrong.

A major theme in this week's Torah portion is the disease of tzaraat. The Torah teaches that when a person sees certain discolorations on his skin, he is to show it to a Kohen (priest), who will determine whether or not it is actually tzaraat and, consequently, whether or not the inflicted person is to be considered spiritually impure.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a classic exposition of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, explains the fundamental lesson behind this mitzvah. This procedure for diagnosing tzaraat is premised upon the understanding that Hashem supervises every aspect of our lives. We see this in the way that an infected person must recognize that this discoloration could be tzaraat, and bring it to a Kohen for a decision. One could potentially overlook the infliction as a natural occurrence. Instead, the patient must realize that just as everything else is directed by Hashem, so might this skin ailment be Hashem's message to him. So he must go to a Kohen, a figure whose service in the Temple helped people gain atonement for their sins. Hopefully, while the inflicted person stands next to this figure of atonement, maybe he'll introspect, pinpoint his wrongdoings, and come to do teshuvah (repentance) for them. In this way, tzaraat acts as a divine wake up call, urging a person to do teshuvah. But it is up to the afflicted person to accept it in that way, and follow the Torah's procedure of going to a Kohen for assessment and introspection. If he looks away and views it as a natural skin irritation, then he's missed the point entirely.

The Chofetz Chaim, the saintly Torah scholar and leader of the Jewish people at the beginning of this century, discusses a very similar idea. He explains that one of the reasons why Hashem brings hardships on a person is to awaken them to do teshuvah. Tzaraat is a case in point. If a person sinned by speaking lashon hara (evil speech or slander, the main cause of tzaraat), Hashem would remind him to stop by introducing him to progressing stages of tzaraat. First, the tzaraat would affect the sinner's house. The sinner would have to take the hint and go to the Kohen for a diagnosis. If he chose to look away from this hint, the warning would get harsher and strike his clothing. Once again, he was expected to take heed of the warning and go to a Kohen. But if he still overlooked the message and obstinately stuck to his evil ways, then the tzaraat would finally strike his body, and he'd be forced to sit alone, outside the camp, until he corrected his wrongdoings and the tzaraat went away.

The entire point of tzaraat was to awaken people to the fact that they were sinning, and prompt them to do teshuvah. But if it was viewed as a chance happening, and not as a sign from Hashem, this objective was missed. Because tzaraat is not implemented by Hashem today, we often consider it in an abstract, theoretical manner. We fail to realize that although tzaraat does not physically exist today, its lesson still stands strong.

Rabbeinu Yonah, in his fundamental exposition on the laws of repentance, Shaarei Teshuvah, writes that when a person is stricken with hardships, he should not merely view them as bad luck or misfortune, but he should assume that these hardships were spurred by his sins. This assumption should drive him to contemplate doing teshuvah. The hardships may have befallen him for some other reason, but it is very likely that he is being reminded to repent. He must then examine his deeds to find which areas warrant correction. In the same way that a person needed to approach tzaraat, we must approach the difficulties in our lives. It is very easy to write off mishaps as natural occurrences. But at the same time, each of them could be a wake up call from Hashem, prompting us to pinpoint our wrongdoings and rectify them.

Just as Avi needed to pay attention to the messages from his overheating car, so must we take heed of the messages being sent to us through tzaraat and the physical hardships that we experience. Avi's gauges were telling him that something was wrong, but he chose to overlook them until his car finally burned out. We also have warning signs, but do we view them as such, or do we look away from them as ordinary mishaps and annoyances? By tuning in to this lesson from tzaraat, may we become more sensitive to the signs around us, prompting us to pinpoint our areas of weakness, and enabling us to grow to a closer and more correct observance of Hashem's Torah and mitzvot.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.

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