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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


This shall be the law of the metzora. (14:2)

There is no shortage of punishment in store for the individual, whose mouth runs loosely, spewing forth slander and other forms of evil speech. Yet, it does not seem to be enough of a deterrent. We get caught up in the rush of life and, before we know it, we have once again rationalized speaking negatively about someone, finding some reason to justify whatever disparaging comments come into our minds. Explaining the gloom that awaits the baal lashon hora, slanderer, the Zohar HaKadosh makes one statement that should serve as a wake-up call for us. He writes: "The prayer of the individual who speaks lashon hora will not ascend to Hashem, because there is a ruach of tumah, spirit of ritual impurity, hovering over him. This spirit hovers until the individual repents completely." David Hamelech alludes to this idea when he writes in Tehillim 17:1, "A Prayer of David…Attend to my entreaty, give ear to my prayer - which is not from deceitful lips." Hashem, since I am not guilty of speaking lashon hora, I ask that You to listen to my entreaty.

This statement should disturb us. Imagine pouring out one's heart to Hashem in prayer-- either for another Jew or for oneself-- and praying with devotion, sincerity and true fervor, yet not a single prayer penetrates the Heavens, because the prayer emanates from an impure source. Very frightening, but true. We daven; we scream; we cry our hearts out, but the tefillos lack the "propulsion" to rise up to Heaven, because they are stuck in the muck of our lashon hora. Clearly, we do not think about this when we supplicate Hashem.

In reality, the situation is even worse than that. When the nachash, serpent, was guilty of being the catalyst of the first sin, his mouth played a crucial role in this debacle. Hashem punished the serpent by recreating him to live off dirt as its means of sustenance. At first glance, this does not seem to be a serious punishment. After all, the serpent always finds its "food" readily available. He never has a shortage of dirt to eat. It may not be tasty, but it is plentiful. Apparently, the punishment has a deeper meaning. Essentially, because its food will always be readily available, the serpent never has to turn to Hashem in prayer for sustenance. That is exactly what Hashem wants; He wants absolutely nothing to do with the serpent: "Here is your food. Leave Me alone; I am not interested in anything that you have to say."

When we think about it, Hashem has the same reaction to us when we speak disparagingly of others. He does not listen to our prayers, because they emanate from a defiled source. He wants nothing to do with us. Just like the serpent. This is truly frightening.

This shall be the law of the metzora. (14:2)

The Zohar Hakadosh says that the word metzora is an acronym for motzi (shem) ra, one who brings forth slander and evil. Regrettably, the more prevalent a sin becomes, the more it is ignored and accepted as a way of life. Lashon hora is a general term that applies to any form of speech that defiles the purity of one's mouth. The consequences are devastating. Yet, we continue to ignore the admonishments, the exhortations, the rebuke and the constant punishments that are clear messages from Heaven invoking us to cease our abuse of the primary characteristic by which man is distinguished from the animal.

Rather than focus on lashon hora, I would like to address another area of speech in which many of us are deficient. It is not evil speech, but it is the lack of good speech: the refusal to speak up when necessary. The Zohar on Sefer Vayikra 46 declares: "Just as a person is punished for speaking evil (gossip, slander), so, too, is a person punished for not speaking up when the opportunity arises." If one can talk, and he chooses not to, he has sinned. All Jews are responsible for one another. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to "mix in" when a co-religionist is acting inappropriately. Likewise, if a Jew is suffering at the hands of someone, we must do something to ameliorate his travail. The Torah tells us that when Moshe Rabbeinu saw two Jews fighting with each other, he rebuked them. Their response was not very friendly, as they accused him of murdering an Egyptian, intimating that they had no qualms about relaying this information to the authorities. Moshe Rabbeinu's reaction was: "Indeed, the matter is known!" (Shemos 2:14) Simply, this means that the fact that Moshe had killed the Egyptian was public knowledge. Rashi, however, citing the Midrash, explains, "It has now become known to Moshe why the Jews (in Egypt) deserved to suffer so: they quarreled and carried tales about one another." This is enigmatic. Egypt was filled with an entire Jewish nation of which two miscreants, Dassan and Aviram, were slanderous. Is this a reason for an entire nation to suffer? When this question was posed to Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, he replied that when there are talebearers among the Jewish people, they delay the redemption. Why, however, should the rest of the nation suffer? "They did not protest!"

When we ignore the evil that occurs; when we turn our heads away from those who blatantly undermine the Torah laws; when we shy away from rebuking those who act inappropriately-- whether it be in the manner of dress, the places they frequent, the lifestyles they choose to adopt-- then we are equally responsible.

Lashon hora does not only mean actively speaking evil. If one refrains from speaking up when he should, he is guilty of passively defiling his power of speech. Many of us are acutely aware of indignities, travesties, and tragedies that occur all of the time. Some of these occurrences take place far away, while others occur in our own backyard. Nonetheless, this awareness does not evoke a response of indignation, concern, or protest from us. We go about our insular lives with our collective heads in the ground as if nothing is happening. By not speaking up, we are committing a grave sin - similar to what occurred in Egypt thousands of years ago when no one put a stop to the two scoundrels who were Moshe's nemesis throughout their stay in the wilderness. We are aware of the pain suffered by others, but we refuse to picture that pain, lest it affect us. At every possible opportunity, we seek to channel our thoughts away from any form of negative emotion, because it will ruin the idyllic life we have constructed for ourselves.

Sixty-five years ago, an entire world stood deaf and mute to the cries of the Jews in Europe. As innocent Jews were being subjected to the cruelest and most brutal suffering imaginable, the world blocked out what they knew was happening, hoping to maintain their innocence. They refused to hear the cries, and they refused to speak up. They defiled their power of speech.

In a very moving statement, a German Protestant pastor, who was himself interred in a German concentration camp, wrote the following: "In Germany: They first came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the gypsies, and I did not speak up because I was not a gypsy. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me. And by that time, there was no one left to speak up."

I would like to address another aspect of "speaking up" or "speaking out". How often have we "kicked ourselves" for not giving a compliment, for not inviting someone, for not saying something nice that would make a difference in someone's life? I recently read a story that reflects a reality that probably has happened to all of us at one time or another. When we look back, it is often too late. We ask ourselves, "Why did I not say something?" Let this episode be a reminder to all of us for all those lost words that never make their way to the surface: the things that we wanted to say; things that we know we should have said.

A successful businessman on the West Coast decided that after working hard on a project for a number of months, he needed a vacation. There was an opportunity for a short trip to Eretz Yisrael as part of a seminar. The hotel was distinctive, the speakers prolific and engaging. Why not? It is only money! He decided to make the trip. The Sunday before the trip, he had occasion to speak to his father, who lived in the south and said that he would be in New York that week. The son told his father that he was flying through New York on his way to the Holy Land. Perhaps they would get together. As soon as he mentioned Eretz Yisrael, his father seemed interested and said, "Oh, I wish I could go again!"

In one of those rare moments of lucidity, the son said, "Dad, why not come along? It would be so nice to spend a few days together in Eretz Yisrael."

His father, taken aback at the suddenness of the offer, at first demurred. "I am not ready," he said lamely. "It is really too much money for me to spend right now," was his final excuse.

"Dad, do not worry about the money. It is my treat. I just did very well on my latest project, and it generated much more cash flow than I had expected. I would be happy to pay for the trip," his son countered.

The father agreed. Thinking back to the conversation, the son could not determine what motivated his sudden altruism. "Something" told him: "Do it; it is the right thing to do." The trip was a huge success. While father and son were close, they had not lived near one another in over twenty years. This was quality time, well spent in a place that inspired one with great kedushah. Let it suffice to say that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both father and son.

They returned from Eretz Yisrael with each one disembarking in New York and switching planes for his own individual destination. A few months went by. Every time the son spoke to his father, his father would make some remark about the trip. It was as if it had been the most seminal event in his life. At the end of the summer, the father suddenly became ill. After a short stay in the hospital, he succumbed to his illness. Before he died, he told his son, "Thank you once again for the trip. It meant so much to me."

Looking back, the son remarked, "If I would not have spoken up, invited my father and offered to pay for the ticket, it would not have happened. I would have lost out on the experience of my life."

We are all confronted at one time or another with a similar situation. Should we speak up - or not? In the episode above, the son listened to that "inner voice" that encouraged him to speak. Perhaps we should start listening more closely, and then we might start speaking when necessary.

This should be the law of the metzora. (14:2)

In his commentary to the previous parsha, Sforno addresses the fact that the miraculous plague of tzaraas no longer occurs. He explains that this phenomenon is Heaven-sent for the sole purpose of alerting the owner of the garment, house, or person, to take stock of his life and actions-- and repent for his sins. As the Ramban, Hilchos Tzaraas 16:10, states: "The changes that occur within the individual, his house or his garments are not part of the natural order of the world. They are a sign from Heaven, a wonder for Klal Yisrael, cautioning them to abstain from the evil tongue."

Furthermore, writes the Sforno, the fact that these laws do not apply to gentiles serves as a springboard for emphasizing that man is the crown of creation, selected to imitate G-d through his cognitive abilities and freedom of choice. While this elevates the entire creation of humankind, the bulk of mankind has not realized this G-d-given mandate, this mission for life. Thus, they rejected this awesome responsibility. Even among Klal Yisrael, only a relatively small number, an elite few, achieved the level of excellence which Hashem has ordained for them. Even these individuals need to be reminded, to receive that little nudge, when they falter or deviate. They must have their memories refreshed to mend their ways to return to Hashem. One of Hashem's methods for arousing us from our periodic slumber is that of negaim, afflictions. It, therefore, is understandable that these laws apply only to Klal Yisrael, for negaim are a miraculous lesson reserved only for those who understand their ultimate purpose and act accordingly.

Bearing this in mind, Sforno posits that the visiting of these afflictions upon Klal Yisrael is a consequence of Hashem's compassion for us and His desire that we repent to accept our historic mission to be a mamleches Kohanim v'goi kadosh, "kingdom of Priests and a holy nation." The special providence enjoyed by our people is manifested by Hashem's ongoing concern which, paradoxically, also carries with it special reminders. It is precisely because Klal Yisrael has achieved a high level of holiness that their sins create such sensitivity and susceptibility to punishment. Once we descended from that exalted plateau, we were no longer worthy of being singled out for such direct and wondrous catalysts for remembering our place in the scheme of creation. This is why we neither witness these phenomena today, nor have we heard of them for many generations.

Sforno concludes by lamenting the fact that we are not on the spiritual plateau worthy of negaim. Sforno wrote this thesis over five hundred years ago. What should we say today?

If he is poor and his means are not sufficient, then he shall take one sheep as a guilt-offering. (14:21)

While the "wealthy" metzora brings three animals for his sacrifice, the poor metzora gets by with one sheep. The Midrash explains the reason for the Torah's emphasis on dal, poor, and also, eiyn yado maseges, his means are insufficient. There are two types of poor man. The dal is halachically poor in that he has bankrupted his possessions, leaving himself with very little. While he may have originally been worth one hundred and now he is worth only fifty, he may collect charity, but he is not yet at the point of being allowed to bring a korban ani, poor man's sacrifice. He still has - perhaps not as much as he did before-surely not as much as he would like, but he has. He is a dal and, therefore, he must bring a korban ashir, rich man's sacrifice.

There is a powerful lesson to be derived from here. Many of us do not have as much as we would like. Some once had it, but lost it. Others only dreamed of having it and never really made it, their dreams often ending up as just that: dreams. At least you have! We go through life complaining that we would have liked to have had more; we aspired to have much more; this is not what I planned for. Rather than thank Hashem for what we do have, we spend our time complaining about what we are lacking. The Torah teaches us not to sin, not to complain. Perhaps you do not have as much as you would have liked, but at least you have something. Thank Hashem for what you have! Maybe you will be worthy of receiving more. Complaining about what he is lacking is a poor way of showing gratitude for what one has.

To rule on which day it is to be contaminated and on which day it is to be purified: this is the law of tzaraas. (14:57)

Some of us have been there. When one is sick and relegated to lying in a hospital bed, he expects to be stuck and poked every few hours. The worst part is the indignity the physician with his entourage manifest as he enters the room to teach a class with you, the patient, exhibited as the specimen around which the class revolves. The shame and humiliation of being degraded, of being viewed as a piece of meat, is an issue that halachah addresses. In fact, Horav Eliezer Waldenberg, Shlita, renders that if the demonstration will not bring about a positive benefit for the patient, it is absolutely forbidden. It is halbonas panim, humiliation, which has no therapeutic purpose other than to stroke the physician's ego.

Rav Waldenberg supports his thesis with the words of the Netziv, to the pasuk in our parsha, "To rule on which day it is contaminated and on which day it is purified; this is the law of tzaraas." (14:57) The word l'horos, to rule, is used by the Raavad in his commentary to Toras Kohanim after citing a Yerushalmi, that a Kohen may not render a decision concerning the purity or impurity of a plague unless he has studied under a rebbe, mentor, who has shown him the variations in negaim, plagues, and how to distinguish between them. The Netziv adds that this is why the Torah concludes with the words: "This is the law of tzaraas." Veritably, it is humiliating for the metzora to be visited by a "class" of Kohanim with the head Kohen teaching a class in "show and tell," describing the various plagues using the metzora as the specimen. Certainly, under any other circumstance, this would be absolutely prohibited, due to the severe humiliation it causes for the patient. However, tzaraas is different. This "patient" brought the affliction upon himself by disparaging others. The only way he can atone for his miscreancy is by himself undergoing the process of humiliation. That is why it is permitted only in this specific case of tzaraas. Otherwise, there is absolutely no dispensation whatsoever to embarrass another Jew under any circumstance.

Some of us think that humiliation is an integral part of discipline, and embarrassment is a vital aspect of rebuke. It is wrong. There is no heter, allowance, for degrading another Jew, regardless of the reason. Indeed, Chazal tell us that Yeravam ben Nevat of Yisrael, despite his evil ways, merited the monarchy of the Jewish People, because he rebuked Shlomo Hamelech. He ultimately lost it because he performed his rebuke in public, causing Shlomo embarrassment. No justification validates putting down another Jew - none whatsoever.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem heifir atzas goyim, heini machshevos amim.
Hashem annuls the counsel of nations, He balks the designs of peoples.

Siach Yitzchak distinguishes between heifer, annul, and heini, balk, in that heini refers to one who prevents the objective from occurring through force or other means. Heifir does not interfere with one's choice to carry out his objective. He simply abrogates it, rendering it ineffective. A difference also exists between eitzah, counsel, and machashavah, design, in that machashavah refers to the thoughts and plans that serve as a medium for bringing about the objective. Eitzah is the objective, the end result of one's plans. We now understand the pasuk, "Hashem is meifir, annuls, the counsel of nations," even after they have carried out their well-made plans, He annuls their eitzos, counsel. Their success is short-lived, because He puts an end to their achievements. Furthermore, "He is meni, balks the designs of nations;" Hashem prevents the plans from ever reaching fruition, transforming the best laid plans into gibberish.

The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, explains that machshavah is one's own personal thoughts, while eitzah is the advice he receives from others. When a person seeks to do something, he makes all kinds of machashavos, plans. He only fulfills these plans when it is atzas Hashem, the counsel of Hashem. Only if his thoughts coincide with those of Hashem, will he be successful.

In memory of our beloved parents
Rabbi Dr. Avrohom Yitzchok Wolf
Rebbetzin Anna Moses

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