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Ups and Downs

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Metzorah
“Ups and Downs”

There are two portions dedicated to tzara'as (a spiritual skin disease), Tazria and Metzora. Parshas Tazria primarily discusses the punishment of tzara'as to a sinner (Parshas Tazria, 13:2; Eiruchin, chap. 3, "Yesh B'Eiruchin", pg. 15b, Rebbi Yochanan quoting Rebbi Yosi), whereas Parshas Metzora primarily discusses the tikkun (fixing) and purification of a metzora with the offering that he brings (Parshas Metzora, 14:2-7; Rashi 14:4, citing Eiruchin 16b - 17b; Tanchuma Metzora, 3).

The items used to purify the metzora are: two birds, cedar wood, a crimson thread, and hyssop. One bird is slaughtered; the other is sent free upon the open field. All of the other ingredients are dipped into the blood of the dead bird over spring water and sprinkled on the metzora in order to purify him (Parshas Metzora, 14:4-7).

The Gemara (Eiruchin, pg. 15b) explains that birds are used because the metzora was afflicted with tzara'as because of speaking Lashon Hara. Lashon Hara is a bunch of babbling words. Therefore, birds which babble constantly with their chirping sounds, atone for him.

A metzora is also guilty of arrogance. Therefore, wood from a cedar tree is used because it is a tall tree representing his haughtiness. Since the metzora must learn to be humbler, a hyssop is used because it is a very low bush representing humility.

The earliest source which understands the cedar tree and hyssop in this way is found in the words of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon). The pasuk (verse) says that Shlomo was wiser than Adam Harishon, Avraham Avinu, Moshe, Yosef, and the entire generation who wandered in the desert (Melachim Aleph,5:11; Rashi citing a Midrash). The pasuk continues to say that Shlomo spoke 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs (Melachim Aleph, 5:12). It also says that Shlomo spoke to the trees, from the cedar in Lebanon down to the hyssop which grows out of the wall (Melachim Aleph, 5:13).

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, Parshas Chukas, 19:3; the Rabanan) explains these pesukim by saying that Shlomo had 3,000 proverbs for every verse in the Chamishei Chumshei Torah (Five Books of Moses), and he had 1,005 reasons for every proverb.

This means that Shlomo taught 3,015,000 reasons on every verse in the Torah (3,000 proverbs on each verse x 1,005 reasons for each proverb = 3,015,000 reasons on each pasuk).

Now, there are 5,845 pesukim (verses) in the Chamishei Chumshei Torah. Therefore, Shlomo taught 17,535,000 proverbs on the entire Torah (3,000 proverbs on each pasuk x 5,845 pesukim = 17, 535,000 proverbs on the entire Torah).

It also turns out that Shlomo taught 17,622,675,000 reasons on the entire Torah (3,015,000 reasons on every pasuk x 5,845 pesukim = 17, 622,675,000 reasons on the entire Torah).

The Midrash concludes by explaining that the pasuk which spoke about Shlomo speaking about cedar trees and hyssops means that Shlomo taught us the reason why a metzora must bring these items. It is because the metzora was haughty like a tall cedar tree. This arrogance caused him to contract tzara'as. (Haughtiness leads a person to speak Lashon Hara because he feels superior to others. As such, he feels that he has a right to speak disparagingly about others). Therefore, he must humble himself like a hyssop in order for him to be healed.

The question is, “Why did the pasuk and midrash measure Shlomo's wisdom with this reason that he provided for a metzora bringing cedar wood and hyssop? Why was this reason chosen more than any of the other myriads of reasons that Shlomo had in expounding on the Torah to demonstrate his wisdom?”

Let us begin with an important teaching. With respect to the two birds brought in the purification process of a metzora where one is slaughtered and the other is sent free upon the open field. Why do we treat these two birds differently? Why not slaughter them both as an offering to atone for the metzora?

Rebbi Yehoshua of Belz (the Mitteler Rav, 1825-1894, Western Ukraine) answers this question based on the Zohar (Parshas Tazria, pg. 46b) which says that just like a person needs an atonement for forbidden words he should have never uttered, similarly, a person needs atonement for holy words that he should have spoken, but instead, he chose to remain silent.

The slaughtered bird came to atone for a person who spoke forbidden speech. When a bird is slaughtered, it stops chirping. This was meant as a message to the Lashon Hara speaker that he has to learn when to keep his mouth shut.

However, the bird sent free upon the open field will continue to chirp constantly. This was meant as a message to the person who was in a position to share words of Torah and encouragement with others, but instead, chose remain silent. This bird teaches such a person that he has to know when to open his mouth and say something.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this approach of the Belzer Rebbe also addresses another difficulty which is, “Why does a metzora have to bring both cedar wood and hyssop?” If this person's problem was arrogance, he should just bring the low hyssop to teach him humility. Why would he bring wood from the tall cedar tree? The cedar tree represents the problem of haughtiness.

The answer is just like there are situations in which a person must behave with humility, similarly, there are situations in which a person must clothe himself with holy haughtiness to do God's will. This is called healthy pride. We must know when to stand tall and stand proud to do Hashem's will, even though it may be in full view for the public to see.

For a person to remain passive when he should have been active by hiding himself behind the cloak of humility, is false humility. The cedar wood teaches such a person that there are times that one has to stand tall and proud to do God's will.

Let us share a kabbalistic teaching which will explain why we measured Shlomo's wisdom by the reason he provided for a metzora bringing cedar wood and hyssop for his purification.

The Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Jerusalem-1572 Tzfas; Sha'ar Hagilgulim, preface, 22) says that if a person dies without doing teshuva, he must become a gilgul (reincarnation) prior to going to Gehinnom (Purgatory) in order to achieve atonement. A person can be sent back down as a gilgul into any of the four levels of creation: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. The type and severity of the sin determines which level he will be reincarnated into.

The Sefer Chareidim (Rabbi Elazar Azikri, Tzefas, 1533-1600) adds that although when we are reincarnated into a person, we have no recollection of our past lives; nevertheless, when reincarnated into any of the other three levels of creation, we remember all of our past transmigrations. This knowledge increases our pain because we see how we have been demoted from a person to a horse or to a potato. This is extremely demeaning. This pain helps cleanse the person from sin. However, when reincarnated into a person, there is no recollection of the past because such knowledge would prevent the person from making free choices. He would be compelled to do the right thing in order to repair himself. That would undermine the purpose of creating man.

Now, if a person sinned with arrogance and died without doing teshuva, he is reincarnated into a tall cedar tree which represents haughtiness. The punishment fits the crime. However, if a person sinned with invalid humility and died without doing teshuva, he is reincarnated into a low hyssop which represents humility. Once again, the punishment fits the crime.

This information explains the following verse. In Koheles (4:1) where Shlomo Hamelech says, "I returned and I saw all the acts of oppression that have been committed beneath the sun and behold, tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them."

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the "oppressed" ones here refer to the souls of people who have sinned and died without doing teshuva and were reincarnated into various materials. They cry "tears" to be released from their prisons, but there is no "comfort" because, once a person is dead, it's too late for him to do teshuva. Shlomo saw all of those souls stuck in these materials. Shlomo knew them. He knew the sins they had committed in their previous lives. Shlomo saw their plight and he felt their pain.

However, Hashem never abandons anybody (Shmuel Bais, 14:14). Hashem orchestrates that these materials make their way to Jewish people who use them in the context of a mitzva. The mitzva done with these materials releases the souls trapped inside. The souls can then make their ascent toward Heaven.

This explains why Shlomo's wisdom was measured by giving a reason for a metzora bringing cedar wood and hyssop. Shlomo didn't just talk about the cedar trees in Lebanon, but he spoke to the trees, meaning, he spoke to the souls trapped inside of the trees. This is how Shlomo came to know who these people were. This is how he knew what they were guilty of.

Shlomo understood that such and such a soul was sent to reside in a cedar tree because it had sinned with arrogance. Shlomo also understood that another soul was sent to dwell inside of a hyssop because it had sinned with unhealthy humility.

This knowledge which Shlomo possessed was amazing! It's one thing to have an encyclopedic broad mind which can also delve deeply into any given topic; however, it's a whole different ball game to have knowledge of the souls imprisoned within nature. Shlomo knew their histories and what they needed in order for them to achieve atonement.

Shlomo's knowledge was measured by the cedar tree and hyssop because it demonstrated the greatest example of superior knowledge because it showed that Shlomo even had knowledge of the souls that were trapped inside the trees and bushes.

Practically speaking, we recite berachos over food daily. Let us try to do the following exercise just once a day. When reciting a beracha over something that comes from a tall tree, like an apple, hold the apple in your hand, look at it and think that there might be a soul trapped inside of it. Say to yourself that this soul possibly sinned with arrogance, represented by the tall tree, and subsequently spoke Lashon Hara. Say to yourself, "I would like to improve in this area by realizing that I'm not such a hot-shot myself, so, who am I to speak about others."

Then, make a remarkably good beracha over the apple. The lesson we just learned from the apple, coupled with the beracha, will help release the soul that may be trapped inside of that prison.

Similarly, when reciting a beracha over something that comes from a low bush, like berries, stop for a moment and think that there may be a soul trapped inside that berry, possibly because it sinned with unhealthy humility, represented by the low bush that it grew on. Say, "I would like to improve in this area by stepping up to the plate to do God's will even though it may be a little embarrassing because other people might be watching."

Then, recite an excellent beracha over the berry. The lesson we just learned from the berry, coupled with the beracha, will help release any soul that may be trapped inside of that prison.

Overall, we are beginning to see that the totality of teshuva is accomplished when we don't just focus on ourselves, but also keep other people in mind (See Rabbenu Yona, 1200 Girona-1263 Toledo, Spain; Sha'arei Teshuva, Sha'ar 1, number 50; Yechezkiel 18:30; Tehillim, 51:3-4-15). We must learn more and more about assisting others. This is not only true when it comes to those who have already passed on, but it is certainly true when it comes to those who are still alive. We must reach out and reach in!

So, may we all be blessed with the wisdom of Shlomo to know when to be humble like a quiet hyssop, and when to possess loud holy haughtiness like a chirping cedar tree, in order that we soar like a bird, lifting other souls with us, which is the greatest beracha ever.

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