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Home » Metzora, Tazria

Tazria Metzora: It Is Not About You

Submitted by on April 19, 2020 – 10:18 pmNo Comment | 1,633 views

The Torah tells us that a Jewish man who contracted skin lesions called tzaraat had to be quarantined until the lesions cleared, at which time, he would bring an offering in the Temple. The offering included (among other things) a cedar stick and a hyssop.

Seeking symbolism in these components, our sages suggested that the skin lesions were a divine response to human haughtiness—a sign from above that it was time to rehabilitate. Hence the cedar and hyssop. If one was haughty like a cedar, he had to humble himself like a lowly hyssop.[1]

This explanation suffices if one is satisfied with general symbolism. But if you break the offering down to its details you will notice an anomaly. If one was meant to avoid haughtiness, the cedarwood should have been excluded from the offering. If I were designing an offering meant to prevent haughtiness, I would have left instructions for the tall cedarwood to be symbolically discarded after the hyssop were placed upon the altar. By including both in the offering, the Torah seems to imply that the tall cedar and the low hyssop are embraced with equal fervor.

Haughty and Humble
In the Torah, there are no mistakes. If the cedar stick was placed on the altar, it holds a profound lesson for humanity and a keen insight into human nature. We are grateful to the sages through the ages who devoted their lives to help us uncover these deep truths.

The message of the dual offering is that some people require a hyssop and others require a cedar. Those who suffer from an excess of haughtiness must bring a hyssop offering. Those who suffer from too much humility must bring a cedar offering.

Let’s examine the hyssop first. The Talmud tells us that if a person of prestige, who would not carry his own possessions in public, encounters a lost item on a public thoroughfare, he is exempt from the obligation to return it to its rightful owners. If he would not carry his own possessions in public, he is not expected to carry another’s possessions. Nevertheless, the Talmud states that if he is truly refined, he would return the item. He would carry another’s possession though he would not carry his own.

There are some people who walk around thinking that they are too important to perform simple tasks. They don’t feel the need to give a dollar to a wretched person collecting alms on the street because they already give millions to prestigious hospitals and institutions. They are feted and honored for their largess but they are too prestigious to look after the street poor.

To this person, the Torah says, bring a hyssop. Look in the mirror and perform a reality check. Are you really too important to help another in need? Is your time too valuable to invite a poor person to a restaurant for dinner or to bring him to a clothes shop and buy him a pair of socks? If this is the way you feel, then you are too much of a cedar and need to bring a hyssop offering. Take a dose of humility and find your way back to earth.

Then there is the person who has too much hyssop. This person does not believe he can make a difference. Why should I pray, surely G-d is busy listening to more important people than I. No one up there is going to pay attention to the prayers of a worthless person like me. If there is a need in the community, I can’t respond because no one will respect my efforts anyway. I can’t organize a campaign to help a family of orphans, no one is likely to respond to my solicitations. I am not popular or respected enough in the community.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that it is dangerous to suffer from too much humility. As Jews, we must know that G-d loves us and pays careful attention to every word we say. With a single prayer, we can turn over the world. If your friend is suffering, don’t hesitate to pray for him or her. This is not hubris. This is the confidence that G-d loves you and listens to your voice. Don’t dismiss yourself by saying what power to I have to pray for another, we all have that power.

Similarly, the Talmud admonishes us not to avoid a responsibility that arrives at our doorstep. If there is no one else to take up the task, step up to the plate and do it yourself. Don’t waste time dismissing your ability. If G-d saw fit to send this responsibility your way and there is no one else who can or will run with it, it is G-d’s way of saying that this is your ball and you can and should run with it.

If you can’t do this, you need a dose of cedar. You suffer from too much hyssop and you need to raise yourself up. If you know someone who knows less about Judaism than you do, don’t assume that they won’t pay attention to you because you are not a Torah scholar or because you are not yet religious. If you know something about Judaism, teach it to the Jew who knows less.

If a mitzvah opportunity comes up that requires courage in the face of skepticism or that requires you to buck the system and speak truth to power, don’t hesitate to do it. If you need to advocate for a loved one in the hospital, don’t hesitate or sell yourself short. You are not insignificant, you are important. You are G-d’s child. A divine prince. You can stand up to power and accomplish great things.

The Dual Offering
The Torah demonstrates its profound insight into human nature by requiring the Metzora to bring both the hyssop and the cedar. The Metzora’s main problem is not haughtiness. It is an excessive preoccupation with self. The dual offering tells us that excessive haughtiness and excessive humility are dual sides of the same coin. Both represent an excessive preoccupation with self. The lesson is plain. Stop thinking so much about yourself. Just think about what needs to get done and go do it.

When we make ourselves the subject of any situation, we diminish our ability to succeed. The center of attention must be focused on the subject that needs doing, not on the person who needs to do it. If the objective must be accomplished, it does not matter if you have too much confidence or too little. It matters only that it needs to get done. The poor person does not care whether he or she was fed by a confident person or an insecure person. The poor person only cares to be fed.

If something needs doing and we waste time dwelling on ourselves, whether it is on our strengths or our weaknesses, we have already fallen behind the mark. Says the Torah, bring a cedar and a hyssop. Realize that whether you are excessively high or excessively short, you are excessively mistaken. Take a dose of reality and come back to earth. It is not about you. It never was. It is about the thing that must get done. And when you stop thinking about yourself, you will get it done.

This is why the offering of the Metzora must be dipped in an earthenware vessel filled with spring water. The earthenware reminds us to be earthy, and real, pragmatic, and humble. The spring water reminds us to remain fresh and enthusiastic. It is not about you, it is about bringing water, the elixir of life, to people around you. That is the profound purpose of life.[2]


[1] Leviticus 19:4. See Rashi’s commentary and sources quoted therein.

[2] This essay is based on the teachings of Chidushe Harim on the Parsha.

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