Tazria/Metzora – Triggering the Center

The bulk of this week’s double portion of Tazria and Metzora discusses the concept of tzaraas, spiritual leprosy. The most famous reason one gets tzaraas is for speaking lashon hara, slander. And one of the main reasons one speaks slander is because of gaava, haughtiness, thinking he or she is better than someone else. 
The Chofetz Chaim in his Sefer Shmiras Halashon, chapter 16, remarks regarding one who discovers tzaraas on his body, “furthermore it writes in the Torah (Vayikra 13:45), ‘his clothes shall be ripped and his head unkempt (grown out)’. It’s possible the reason for this is because the main reason for the sin of the tongue stems from haughtiness, that he thinks himself as an important person among people, therefore he decides to degrade his friend. If one would recognize his own fallacies, he would not seek out the blemishes of his friend. The proof to this is that the Torah writes by the purification process of a Metzora, he shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson thread (see Vayikra 14:4). Rashi explains there that if one is haughty like a cedar then he should belittle himself like a worm or a hyssop, and then he would be atoned for. Therefore, the pasuk says that his clothes shall be ripped and his hair on his head grown out in order for him to be disgusting, so that he will look degraded by all and then he won’t speak haughtily about others.”

 Later in the chapter the Chofetz Chaim writes, “’And he shall cloak himself up to his lips’ (Vayikra 13:45). This is because he definitely said to himself originally, ‘Because of our tongues we shall prevail, our lips are with us’ (Tehillim 12:5), therefore Hashem commanded us that at this point one should be cloaked up to his lips. [The end of the earlier pasuk in Tazria says,] ‘he (the afflicted metzora) is to call out, contaminated! contaminated!’ (Vayikra 13:45). He is to make sure that everyone hears he is contaminated and separate from him. For in place of originally revealing the embarrassment of his friend in front of people, now he has to reveal his own embarrassment in front of people.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 The Chofetz Chaim depicts to what extent, from one end of the spectrum to the other, a person who speaks lashon hara is punished and must go in order to repent and change his wrongful ways. However, if you look at the Rashi itself earlier quoted from parshas Metzora, he says “and cedar wood” because these afflictions come because of haughtiness. “And “crimson thread and hyssop,” what is the way to fix it and be healed? Belittle himself from his haughtiness, like a worm and hyssop. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 The Gur Aryeh, which is the Mahara”l’s commentary on Rashi, asks a blaring and really good question on this pasuk: “Why does two things have to be mentioned that he should humble himself like (1) hyssop and like (2) crimson thread, isn’t the most belittling one all that is needed? You can answer that definitely at first one should belittle himself like a worm who is very lowly, in order to distance himself from sin. For originally, he sinned in haughtiness and if he does not separate himself to the opposite extreme, to grab on to the attribute of lowliness very very low, then his sin will not leave his hands because he will go back to his haughtiness therefore one has to lower himself like a worm until he is distanced from the sin and his heart should not feel inflated. But afterwards he should be like a hyssop, and one does not have to belittle himself as low as a worm. This is why the pasuk first mentions crimson thread and then hyssop, because too much lowliness is not befitting because every good attribute has a middle ground, and the two extremes are not good. In this manner the Rambam explains in his introduction to Pirkei Avos, that one who sins with haughtiness, when he fixes his ways, he has to grab onto the most extreme way to lower himself until he removes the disgusting attribute he has [of haughtiness] and then he should stand by humility. This is also a form of lowliness but not as much.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 According to the Gur Aryeh, the reason for a person who has tzaraas has to bring both crimson thread (the thread represents the worm. In fact tolaas, the Hebrew word used in the pasuk means thread and worm) and hyssop, were in order to send a message that he should go to the opposite extreme from haughtiness, and then go back to the middle of regular humility once he gets rid of his haughtiness. What is interesting to note is that to go to the opposite extreme one goes through many actions, for example bringing the crimson thread as part of his sacrifice, clothing himself up to his lips, letting his hair grow out and become disheveled, calling to everyone ‘contaminated, contaminated’ so people will stay away from him, and separating himself from everyone for a week. However, in terms of going back to the middle ground, all there is, is a trigger or reminder, i.e., the hyssop, to indicate that that is the ultimate goal. Wouldn’t one think that logically finding the middle ground would be harder than going to the opposite extreme and therefore would take more action to figure out how to do that?

However, though it might be harder, all that is needed is an intellectual push, using one’s mind to figure out the equilibrium; not much extra actions must be taken to find that perfect balance, and then he automatically acts in that perfect balance. However, one could ask why is it right to go to the opposite extreme first, if the Gur Aryeh says it’s not good to do?
 The Orchos Tzadikim in a similar vein at the end of the Gate of Gaavah remarks: “He who desires to root out haughtiness from his heart completely cannot do this by thought alone but must at first depart from arrogance to its furthest extremity. How? A man who was accustomed to dressing himself in the finest garments such as the haughtiest people wear and wants to turn from this ostentation must overcorrect his defect. If he should wear ordinary clothes in an attempt to correct his fault, he will not eradicate his haughtiness from his heart. Or if his custom was to boast and to exalt himself to win honor by words or deeds. There is no means of correcting this unless he goes to the other extreme and conducts himself with the greatest humiliation, sitting below everyone or far to the rear, and wears worn and shabby clothes that disgrace their wearer, and does similar things until he roots out his haughtiness to heart. The same is true of a man with a hot temper who is angry often. At first, he should conduct himself so that even if they beat him and curse him, he should not feel it at all. He must continue in this manner for a long time until he roots out the very roots of anger from his heart. When he has achieved this, he can then take the middle road and follow it all his life. One should follow this procedure with all evil qualities. At first one should withdraw to the furthest extreme and act thusly for a long time. Afterwards he should take the middle road. And this method of procedure is a complete healing in connection with all evil qualities. And he whose intention continually is to serve the Creator Blessed be He, with every part of himself and in the best manner, will place this path before himself and before his companion. And concerning this it is said: ‘And to him that order his way aright will I show the salvation of God.’ (Tehillim 50:23).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Earlier in the chapter the Orchos Tzadikim describes the ideal median: “The proper way for man is to be clean in all matters, for cleanliness is the fence that guards good deeds. How shall he conduct himself? He should wear garments of moderate worth (elegantly conservative, as my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l used to say), and not expensive and splendid clothes that invite everyone’s attention. Nor shall he wear poor or shabby garments that shame the wearer, but garments of moderate worth, lovely and clean, according to his means. And it is forbidden that a spot or a stain be found on his garments. They should not be torn and they shall not be styled as the haughty sometimes do…”
Based on the Orchos Tzadikim, going to the opposite extreme isn’t ideal, but is a needed boost to get one on the right track, there are stages that must be taken to get to the right place. However, according to the Gur Aryeh, going to both extremes are not good; how then can it help to get one on the right track? It would seem that doing a not good thing can temporarily be useful and even more useful than trying to find the perfect median from the start. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 We learn from here an incredible lesson, that what is not good can still be resourceful. We can’t always go straight to what is good to fix a situation. One must first take steps in doing what is not good but with the intent to clean the wrong that was done before settling into what is the ideal, right thing to do.