You Be Mah -Man

The portion of Tazria discusses blemishes that come to a person on account of sinning, whereas the portion of Metzora discusses the offering that a metzora (the person smitten with the malady) brings to purify himself from tzara’as (a spiritual malaise) which atones for his sin.

Some of the items that a metzora brings in his purification process are: two live clean birds, wood from a cedar tree, a crimson thread, and the hyssop. One of the birds is slaughtered, and the other items are dipped into the blood of the slaughtered bird. Then, the live bird is sent free upon an open field (Parshas Metzora, 14:4-7).

Rashi (Parshas Metzora, 14:4) shows us how all of these items were meant to repair the sin of Lashon Hara (slanderous speech) that the metzora was guilty of. Rashi also points out that it was arrogance which led the metzora to speak Lashon Hara. Since he felt superior to other people, he thought that he had the right to speak about others in a derogatory fashion.

Based on the Medrash Tanchuma (#3) and the Gemara in Meseches Eirachin (chap. 3, “Yesh B’eirachin”, pg. 16b), Rashi explains that the two birds were brought by the metzora for his purification because the metzora had spoken Lashon Hara. Lashon Hara is an act of babbling words. Therefore, the metzora is required to take birds that babble continually with chirping sounds in order to atone for his babbling of Lashon Hara.

Rashi continues to say that cedar wood was used for the metzora’s purification because cedar trees are tall. As such, they come to remind the metzora of his arrogance. Rashi goes on to say that a red thread, called a “tola’as,” which can also translate as “worm,” teaches the metzora that he must lower himself as a worm. The low hyssop plant is also meant to remind the metzora to be humble, which will hopefully heal the metzora from his spiritual illnesses.

Yet, all of this information begs us to ask, “Why was it necessary for the metzora to bring specifically two birds? Why would one bird not suffice? Why did one bird get sent free while the other bird got slaughtered? Maybe both birds should have been slaughtered?”

Rebbi Yehoshua of Belz (Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach, the second Belzer Rebbe, 1825-1894, Ukraine) answers this question by saying that the metzora sinned two-fold with his Lashon Hara. One sin was the actual Lashon Hara. The other sin was that while he spoke Lashon Hara, he did not speak in words of tefillah nor did he speak in words of Torah.

We could add that while he spoke Lashon Hara, he did not use his speech to compliment another person which would have given someone else self-confidence. Instead of building another person up, he tore him down with his Lashon Hara.

Therefore, specifically two birds were brought. One bird was meant to atone for the proactive evil speech, whereas the other bird was meant to atone for the absence of Divrei Tefillah, Divrei Torah, and words which could have given another person chizuk (encouragement).

The slaughtered bird atoned for the negative speech of Lashon Hara, whereas the bird which was sent free and continued chirping atoned for the absence of holy words that the metzora could have uttered.

At this point, we are going to continue to explore another reason for the two birds. In the process we are going to gain an insight into the dipping of these items into the blood of the slaughtered bird. To do so, we will begin with the following Gemara.

In Meseches Berachos (chap, 9, “Haroeh”, pg. 55a), Rebbi Yochanan said that Hashem only gives chochma (wisdom) to those who already possess chochma. We know this from a verse in Sefer Daniel (32:21) which says, “He gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to those who know how to reason.” Rav Tachlifa bar Ma’arva said in front of Rebbi Avahu that there is an earlier verse which carries the same message. In Parshas Ki Sisa (31:6) it says, “And into the heart of every wise-hearted person I have given wisdom.”

The obvious question on this Gemara is, “Why would Hashem have to give chochma to a person who already possesses chochma? Besides, what is the first chochma that a person must already own in order for Hashem to give him the second chochma?” Come to think of it, we could ask it this way, “What is the difference between the first and second chochma?”

Rabbi Moshe Greenwald (the Chuster Rav, 1853-1910, Hungary) addresses this question in his Sefer Arugas Habosem (Parshas Tetzaveh, “V’ata Hakrev Eilecha”). He says that the first chochma that a person must already possess is “anivus” (humility). This is because a person will only be zocheh (merit) to acquire Torah if he is humble.

There are many proofs from the Talmud which support this idea. For example, in Meseches Ta’anis (chap. 1, “M’aimasai”, pg. 7a), Rebbi Chanina bar Idi says that Torah is compared to water (see Yeshaya, 55:1). Just as water trickles downward and settles in the lowest of places, so does Torah rest within the humblest of people.

Another example is found in Tractate Sotah (chap. 1, “Hamekaneh”, pg. 5a), which quotes Rav Yoseph who taught us that we should learn from Hashem Who abandoned all other mountains and chose Har Sinai to give the Torah upon because it was the smallest of the mountains. This teaches us that we will only be able to attain Torah through humility.

One more example is found in a Gemara in Pesachim (chap. 6, “Eilu Devarim”, pg. 66b), which cites Rav Yehuda who said in the name of Rav that any person who suffers from arrogance, if he is a Talmud chacham (Torah scholar), will lose his Torah knowledge.

Therefore, the first chochma that a person must possess is humility. Only then will Hashem give the person the second chochma which is chochmas HaTorah. At this point you might be wondering how we can call humility a “chochma.” Well, we do find a remez (hint) which supports this notion that humility is indeed called a chochma and that remez is as follows.

The word “chochma” is spelled with four Hebrew letters. They are: ches, chuf, mem, and hey. When you draw a line down the center of these four letters, and reverse the order of the first two letters, you get two words which are, “koach-mah.” This means, “the power of mah (what).” You might be wondering what “koach-mah” means. The explanation of this is as follows.

The word “mah” is synonymous with humility, as we find in the verse, “V’nachnu Mah” (what are we). In this pasuk, Moshe and Aharon say that they are not even as low as worms or as dirt. Rather, they are lower than that. They are just “mah.” Meaning, “What are we?” Meaning, “We are nothing.” Therefore, humility can be called “chochma,” because humility is the “koach of mah” (the power of nothingness).

Therefore, the first “chochma” that a person must possess is anivus (koach-mah). Only then will he be given the second chochma which is chochmas HaTorah.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that an example of a humble person can be found in Pirkei Avos (4:1) where Ben Zoma says, “Who is a wise person? One who learns from everybody.” A person like this recognizes that he does not know it all. A doctor may know a lot about medicine, but he may not be so knowledgeable in law. A lawyer may be well versed in law, but he might not know so much about history. A historian may be quite familiar with history but he may be clueless about physics. A physicist may have a mastery over physics but he may know very little about Torah.

A truly humble person realizes that he can learn from everybody. Therefore, when meeting another person, the humble approach would be to listen and learn from that person. That person may have knowledge and experiences that we could learn from.

Until this point, we have discussed focusing on our own shortcomings. However, there is also what to be said about concentrating on God’s greatness. Recognition of Hashem’s vastness can also result in making us feel small which leads to humility as well. The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572, Cracow, Poland; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 98:1) tells us that prior to davening, we should think about the loftiness of the Almighty God, and we should also think about our smallness.

The Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager of Vishnitz, first Vishnitzer Rebbe, 1830-1884, Ukraine; Parshas Lech Lecha), cites his grandfather, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kassov (the author of the Ahavas Shalom), who says that a person should always carry with him two aspects of “mah.” This means to say that there are two verses which contain the word “mah” in them, and each verse displays a different approach to humility.

One pasuk says, “Hashem our Master, Mah Adir Shimcha (how great is Your Name) throughout the earth” (Tehillim, 8:2). This verse focuses on Gadlus HaBorei (the greatness of our Creator). The other pasuk is found in the same chapter in Tehillim (8:5) which says, “Mah Enosh Ki Sizkerenu (what is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that you should be mindful of him.” This verse focuses on the lowliness of man.

The Tzemach Tzedek says that a person should always carry around with him these two aspects of mah. Meaning, we should always think about how great Hashem is (Mah Adir), and we should also think about how small we are (Mah Enosh). Both of these thoughts will bring us to humility.

The period of time known as Sefiras Haomer (the counting of the Omer) is a propitious time for working on humility. The Maggid of Koznitz Rabbi Yisrael Hopstien, 1737-1814, Poland; Likkutei Tehillim, 42) shows us a verse that hints to such an idea. In Tehillim (42:5) it says, “How I passed with a throng (a crowded mass of people), Edadeim (walking slowly) with them up to the Temple of God.”

The Maggid says that when this verse says, “How I passed with a throng,” it refers to the “throng of days” of Sefiras Haomer. How do we know that the pasuk is making a reference to the days of Sefiras Haomer? Because of the very next word in the verse which is, “Edadeim” (walked slowly). The numerical value of “Edadeim” is 49, which represents the forty-nine days of Sefiras Haomer.

As we walk through the days of Sefiras Haomer, we should think of ourselves as nursing babies because a nursing baby is completely dependent on his mother for everything. A nursing baby cannot do anything for himself. As such, a nursing baby epitomizes humility.

How do we know that during Sefiras Haomer we are supposed to see ourselves as nursing babies? The answer is found in the same word “Edadeim” which alludes to a nursing baby because the letters of the word “Edadeim” spell, “Dodd Eim” (nursing from the mother).

Therefore, during the forty-nine days of Sefiras Haomer (Edadeim), we should see ourselves as nursing infants (Dodd Eim) who are completely dependent on our Mother in Heaven. Just as a baby depends on his mother completely for his nourishment, so do we depend on Hashem completely to be nourished with Torah knowledge.

If we use the time of Sefiras Haomer to obtain this humility, which is the first chochma (koach-mah), then we will be able to receive the second chochma on the holiday of Shavuos, which is chochmas HaTorah.

Since the portions of Tazria and Metzora are read during Sefiras Haomer, we are going to see how these portions share this same message with us. But first we are going to share the following dialogue.

In Teshuos Chein (by Rabbi Gedalia Aharon Rabinowitz, 1812-1878, Ukraine; Likkutim) it says that once upon a time, the Rebbe Reb Zusha (1718-1800, Ukraine) got into a conversation with his brother the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786, Ukraine). They argued about which derech (approach) in Avodas Hashem (Divine service) is better. Is it better to first focus on one’s lowliness and then concentrate on Hashem’s greatness or is it better to first focus on God’s greatness and only afterwards concentrate on one’s lowliness?

They could not resolve the correct answer to this question. So, they decided to ask their Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch (Reb Dov Ber, 1704-1772, Ukraine). The Maggid told them that although both approaches are beautiful, starting with one’s own lowliness is the preferred way to go.

Reb Elimelech was of that opinion as well. In Noam Elimelech (Parshas Vayeitzei) Reb Elimelech cites a proof which supports his position. The pasuk about Ya’akov’s prophetic dream says, “Behold, there was a ladder that was set earthward, with its top reaching into the heavens” (Parshas Vayeitzei, 28:12). This verse first describes the feet of the ladder firmly planted on earth, which represents a person’s lowliness. Only then does the verse describe the top of the ladder reaching into the heavens, which represents concentrating on God’s vastness.

The Shvilei Pinchas points out that once we reach the level of humility (koach-mah) by focusing on our lowliness, then we will be zocheh to the chochmas HaTorah, which will then supply us with the tools with which we will be able to appreciate the greatness of Hashem, which will further strengthen our feeling of humility.

With all of this information in place, we will finally be able to answer our original question in a second way. We had asked why it was necessary for the metzora to bring specifically two birds for his atonement and purification when apparently only one bird would suffice. We already shared one approach from the Belzer Rebbe. Now let us introduce another answer.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the first bird which is slaughtered is meant to remind the metzora of his own mortality. Once he remembers that he will die one day, it puts him into his place and makes him humble. After all, arrogance got him into this mess to begin with. Therefore, the slaughtered bird is meant to generate feelings of humility, just like the tola’as string and the hyssop was supposed to accomplish.

Once the metzora becomes humbled from the slaughtered bird experience, the second bird is set free. As the bird flies away, the metzora’s attention is drawn to the sky and to the beauty of nature. When the metzora sees the vastness of nature, it will bring him to think about the vastness of Hashem, as it says, “Raise your eyes on high and see Who created these things” (Yeshaya, 40:26). This will make the metzora feel small which is part of the metzora’s tikkun (fixing).

The Shvilei Pinchas concludes by pointing out that the free bird had been dipped into the blood of the slaughtered bird. The purpose of this is as follows. Once the metzora’s attention has been drawn to the vastness of nature and Hashem, there is a concern that the metzora will start to think that he can completely understand God. Such a thought would be in and of itself arrogant.

Therefore, the stains of blood from the slaughtered bird that is on the free bird reminds the metzora of death once again. Death will remind him of his own mortality. His mortality will remind him that he is finite, and as such, he is only capable of understanding a limited amount of Hashem. This will keep the metzora humble which will safeguard him from speaking Lashon Hara in the future.

Practically speaking, let us try the following exercise. Let us take two pieces of paper. On one of them, let us write down the verse, “Mah Enosh Ki Sizkirenu” (what is frail man that You should remember him). On the other piece of paper let us write the other verse, “Mah Adir Shimcha B’chol Ha’aretz” (How mighty is Your Name throughout the earth).

During the day, let us look at one piece of paper and then let us look at the other one in order to further instill feelings of humility within our hearts in these two ways.

Additionally, we could paper clip the Mah Enosh pasuk to the first page of our siddurim, and paper clip the Mah Adir verse on the last page of the service in our siddurim. In this way, we begin and conclude our tefillos properly with the feelings of humility.

This exercise will help instill a little bit more humility within us, which in turn will grant us a greater understanding of Torah, which in turn will give us the tools that will help us appreciate Hashem even more.

So, may we all be blessed this Sefiras Haomer with the wisdom of koach-mah by realizing just how frail man actually is, and in return, may we be blessed with chochmas HaTorah, and fly like a bird in order to recognize just how mighty Hashem is.