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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria- Parashas HaChodesh: Haughty or humble?
When a person thinks back to the conception and birth, our sages show us how this is a most humbling thought. From where do you come? From a foul-smelling drop ..." Right from the beginning, man was the crown of creation. "Even the smallest insect was created before you." Man was the last to be created on the sixth day of creation so Adam and Eve could start their existence with the fulfillment of the commandment of observing Shabbos. The common denominator for the sins causing Tzaraas is the person's elevated ego and haughtiness. Part of the ingredients needed for the purification is a piece of cedar wood and some hyssop. The exodus itself is like the "birth" of the Jewish people. On Seder night we have to relate our humble beginnings as slaves in Egypt, and even to go further back to the time when our ancestors were still idol worshippers. When the time is ripe, G'd will redeem us from this long and bitter exile with the coming of Mashiach.
In the beginning of this week's portion, the Torah instructs us about several commandments in regard to childbirth. When parent's have a child, this is one of the most special events in their life. They actually become partners with G'd. The physical being has been reproduced by the father and the mother, but G'd Himself adds the spiritual dimension to their newborn. However, when a person thinks back to the conception and birth, our sages show us how this is a most humbling thought.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:1) says: "Look at three things and you will not come to do any sin: Know from where you come, and to where you are going, and before Whom you will have to stand in judgment and do an accounting. From where do you come? From a foul-smelling drop ..." The commentaries point out that the Mishnah seems redundant by repeating "from where do you come". They explain that the Mishnah actually refers to both the spiritual and physical origins of every human being. On the one hand, the physical beginning of every individual is most humbling: a foul smelling seed that slowly divides and eventually develops into a fetus. On the other hand, the Kabbalists explain that everyone is blessed with a soul that originates from such a high spiritual world that even the angels do not get there. The combination of such a lofty soul with a body with such humble beginnings only adds to the marvel of the human being living an existence of both spirituality and physicality at the same time.
Crown and service
This is the challenge that faces every human being. Right from the beginning, man was the crown of creation. As the Tana of the Mishnah (Kiddushin 82a) says "Everything has been created to serve me and I was created to serve my Creator." The first part of this quote has the potential of making a person haughty and arrogant, and might bring one to abuse other creatures. Comes the second part to remind us that ultimately everything is here only to assist us in our service of G'd. Remembering our physical origin makes it easier for us to stay humble and modest. But at the same time we have to remember our spiritual dimension and realize what great potential we have within us. Our lofty souls came down to this world to give us an opportunity to elevate the physical and mundane to a higher spiritual level by utilizing all parts of the world to serve G'd.
Smallest insect and guest of honour
At the beginning of this week's portion Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 14:1) that just as the creation of man came after the creation of all other beings, so does this week's portion deal with the laws of man after having dealt with the laws regarding animals towards the end of last week's portion. The Sifsei Chachamim (ibid) explains this with a quotation from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a). The Talmud discusses why man was created after everything else. In case a person might become haughty, we say to him "even the smallest insect was created before you." But at the same time, every person should know that this world is like a big banquet. The guest of honour only enters once everything is ready and everyone has taken their seat. In the same way, the human being was only put into the world when everything was in place.
The Talmud has a third insight why man was the last to be created on the sixth day of creation. In this way, says the Talmud, Adam and Eve could start their existence with the fulfillment of the commandment of observing Shabbos. Here again we see the three aspects of our purpose in life. On the one hand, we are the crown of creation, with everything created for our benefit. On the other hand, we must always stay humble and remember that we were created for the higher purpose of serving G'd.
Later in this week's portion, the Torah instructs us in great detail the laws of the various blemishes of tzaraas. In earlier times, when G'd's conduct was open and revealed, these physical blemishes would appear on a person's body or garments, or on his house, as a punishment for various sins, such as slandering or selfishness. The common denominator for these sins is the person's elevated ego and haughtiness.
In the beginning of next week's portion, the Torah teaches about the offerings and purification of a person that has been healed from one of these blemishes. Part of the ingredients needed for the purification is a piece of cedar wood and some hyssop (see Vayikra 14:4). The cedar tree can grow into one of the tallest trees that exists; whereas, the hyssop is a very low-growing plant. Rashi (ibid) quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (3) that this comes to teach the person, who has just recovered from the blemish of tzaraas, to remember that the blemish came because of haughtiness and arrogance. If a person looks down on his fellow being and considers himself as tall and mighty as the cedar tree, his remedy is to lower himself and behave with modesty as fitting for someone who feels as low as the hyssop plant. By internalizing this lesson, this person can avoid to be inflicted in the future by any of these blemishes.
This week we read the last of the four extra portions read every year before Purim and Passover. This portion, Parashas HaChodesh, is from Parashas Bo (Shemos 12) where G'd instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the month of Nissan and the laws of the Pesach offering that had to be slaughtered in Egypt prior to the exodus. The exodus itself is like the "birth" of the Jewish people. Here as well we find the combination of a humble beginning with a lofty Divine participation. Prior to the exodus, the Jewish people had developed into a nation of slaves who were persecuted and looked-down upon by their Egyptian masters. Only when G'd, in His great mercy, intervened and sent Moses to take them out from slavery to freedom did they become G'd's chosen nation.
Exodus from Egypt
Just as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos instructs us as individuals to remember our humble physical origin, exactly the same applies to us as a nation. The Talmud (Pesachim 116a) teaches that on Seder night we have to relate our humble beginnings as slaves in Egypt, and even to go further back to the time when our ancestors were still idol worshippers (see Hagaddah shel Pesach after the four questions when we say, "We were once slaves …" and before Vehi Sheamdah, "In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers."). We have many additional commandments throughout the year to remind us about the exodus from Egypt. Every day when we say Shema we mention the exodus and remind ourselves of our humble beginnings and how we were elevated by G'd's intervention. When we see the mezuzah on our doorposts, and when we strap the tefillin on our head and hand, we also connect with the exodus through the portions of the Shema that are inscribed there, together with other portions from the Torah. On Shabbos and Yom Tov when we say Kiddush, we again mention the exodus from Egypt. All these commandments assist us to focus on the real meaning of being G'd's chosen nation. We must always remember that we are chosen to serve G'd through observing the 613 commandments of the Torah. In order to ensure that we do not develop into a nation of haughty and arrogant people, we have the obligation once a year to discuss in detail our humble beginnings and to remind ourselves of these on a daily basis.
Time is ripe
At the same time, this reinforces our belief in G'd. We fully trust that just as G'd took our ancestors out of Egypt as soon as it was time, so when the time is ripe, G'd will redeem us from this long and bitter exile with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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