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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Tazri'a

When a woman who conceives and gives birth to a male...on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (12:2,3)

The commentators, each in his own unique manner, offer various reasons that one is required to perform the bris milah on the eighth day. One of the fundamental reasons is to make sure that the child has lived through a Shabbos. The kedushah, sanctity, of the seventh day/Shabbos infuses a holiness into the child which prepares him for entrance into Klal Yisrael. Horav Mordechai Gifter, Shlita, notes that while on the one hand we infer the remarkable kedushah of Shabbos, we also note that milah bizmanah, a circumcision performed at the designated time, the eighth day, overrides Shabbos. One may desecrate Shabbos in order to perform a bris milah. This indicates the awesome significance of bris milah. Even the fundamental mitzvah of Shabbos, which proclaims and attests that Hashem is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, is secondary to bris milah.

Because bris milah has long been considered the seminal rite of passage for a Jewish child, Jews --regardless of their commitment to religious observance-- have upheld this mitzvah, even under the most challenging circumstances. A number of stories of faith and courage demonstrate Klal Yisrael's singular devotion to this particular mitzvah. There is one story that took place during the Holocaust that characterizes the Jew's commitment to bris milah and to the affirmation of Judaism that accompanies it.

While a Jew is often confronted with challenges to his faith, during times of persecution and pain his conviction is tested to a greater degree. The period of the Holocaust, in whose specter we all live, was a time during which the conventional challenge to our belief was magnified to great proportion. Indeed, the victims of the Holocaust exhibited a tenacious dedication to the eternal bond between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. Their spirits rose to such heights that they gave new meaning to the term, kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name.

The Blushover Rebbe, zl, who was a witness, related this story. The Rebbe was sawing wood, a member of a slave-labor contingent of the infamous Janowska Road Camp. It was the morning of Hoshanah Rabbah, when suddenly terrible screams filled the forest. The workers soon found out that the Nazi's had declared an Aktion, wholesale slaughter of infants and young children. Heartrending cries emanated from the mothers and their little children, as the Nazis cruelly tore them away to be massacred like sheep in a nearby clearing. The procession of weeping, heartbroken mothers and their doomed children was passing by the Rebbe's contingent. Suddenly, one woman, desperately holding on to her infant, abruptly cried out, "Jews, have mercy, give me a knife!"

The Rebbe, assuming she wanted to commit suicide, attempted to discourage the woman from killing herself. One of the Nazi beasts observed this interchange and came over, extending his penknife to the distraught woman. The fiend thought he would he would have some fun watching the Jewish woman take her life.

That is not what happened, however. Holding the knife in her hand, the woman placed her child on the ground and quickly circumcised her son. In an emotion-filled voice, she loudly recited birkas ha'millah. The murderer looked on in complete shock at what had taken place before his eyes. He turned to the woman and asked her to explain her strange action. "Today my son turned eight days old, the time at which a Jewish boy is to be circumcised and brought in as a member of our people. Soon he will be murdered, but he will die as a Jew." Only a couple of hours later, the woman's words rang true as the mother and her infant were led to slaughter.

Every time the Blushever Rebbe, zl, served as a sandek at a bris he would relate this story with tears streaming down his face, filled with pride at the superhuman strength of a simple Jewish mother on the way to her death. The spiritual heroism which our people exhibited during those tragic times should serve as inspiration to us, as well as a declaration to the world of a nation that did not go to their death as "sheep to the slaughter."

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male. (12:2)

The Midrash comments concerning this pasuk. Chazal cite the pasuk in Tehillim 139:5, "" "Back and front, You fashioned me." Resh Lakish says "back and front" refers to the first day of Creation. If a person maintains his commitment to Torah and mitzvos, he is told, "You came before the entire work of Creation." If, in contrast, he lives a life alienated from Torah, he is told, "Even a gnat preceded you; even an earthworm preceded you." While man was created chronologically last, he is first in importance--if he has earned this honor. If, however, he falls from his position, if he does not live up to his charge, the chronological order of his creation has greater significance.

We must endeavor to understand the underlying meaning of Chazal's statement. Does it make sense to suggest that a lowly worm has greater significance than a human being--even one who has erred by alienating himself from the traditions of his people? Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, offers a profound explanation of Chazal's words. Hashem created every creation with a purpose. Ostensibly, the more significant the creation, the more compelling and demanding is its purpose. Man serves as the crown of Creation, the epitome of Hashem's handiwork. His goal in life is commensurate with his ability and opportunity. Hashem created the earthworm for a reason, obviously one which is distinct from the purpose of a human being. The earthworm, however has one advantage over a human--it succeeds in attaining its goal on this world, while the person who did not "make it," falls short of his potential. The lowly earthworm has attained its goal, while man, the crown of Creation, the purpose of all Creation, did not realize his potential.

How compelling is this idea! Success is measured by what a person could and should achieve--not by what an individual thinks he has achieved. We are placed on this world by design. The raison d'etre of our lives is to serve Hashem. Everything that we do exclusive of that objective has little significance in the scheme of the world. It is unfortunate when an individual trades his place as representative of the crown of Creation for an achievement level lower than the potential of an earthworm.

He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (13:46)

The metzora receives retribution commensurate with his nefarious deeds. He has spread rumors, slandered people, broken up friendships, and caused the destruction of families. It is, therefore, appropriate that he have the "opportunity" to feel some of the pain of solitude himself. Let him see how it feels to be alone, away from friends and family, a pariah whose seclusion is self-inflicted. He is being compensated for what he has done to others. Sometimes it is necessary for an individual to experience the hurt that he has caused others before he is motivated to expiate his sin.

We can infer another message from the metzora's imposed seclusion. One who speaks lashon hora foolishly thinks that he endears himself to others. After all, every time he is able to come up with a choice piece of gossip, he attracts a crowd of avid listeners. What he does not realize is that after all has been said and done, no one really wants the slanderer as a friend. Can he be trusted? No! He lives for attention, regardless of the expense to others. Who knows when they will be on his list? The slanderer does not really have friends; on the contrary, he has followers who listen to his "shmutz." Indeed, the metzora's friends are as simple-minded as he. When the metzora is sent into seclusion, he has the opportunity to think. We hope that the stark realization of isolation will awaken him to the fact that his slanderous tongue has actually caused his seclusion from society.

The Yalkut Shimoni cites a dispute between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish concerning the distance one must maintain from the metzora. Rabbi Yochanan says that four amos, cubits, on the eastern side is sufficient, while Resh Lakish contends that one must stay away up to one hundred amos. Chazal explain that in truth they are not disagreeing. The difference lies in whether or not the wind is blowing. If there is no wind, then four amos is sufficient. If there is a wind, one hundred amos is required. Chazal add that Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not even enter the street on which the metzoraim lived. At first we may conclude that Chazal were concerned with the contagious nature of this disease. If so, what is the meaning of distancing oneself from the mizrach, eastern side, of the metzora? Does one side have a greater proclivity for spreading the disease than the other? Also, why were Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi wary of entering the street on which the metzoraim lived? Were they more concerned than their rebbeim, who only distanced themselves a few amos?

Horav A. Y. Kilav, Shlita, remarks that the dispute between the Tannaim is not simply in reference to geographical distance. A relationship with a metzora can have an adverse spiritual effect upon a person. Certainly the metzora is bitter and full of criticism against the Al-mighty. If he had accepted his punishment and repented, his disease would have disappeared. One should stay away from a person whose sin has so permeated his character that it is reflected in leprous lesions throughout his body. He espouses venom and slander, spewing hatred and contention wherever he goes. We must distance ourselves from his mizrach, eastern side. This is a metaphor for the essential source of sin--the mouth and the mind.

The blowing wind is an analogy for the metzora's mouth. If he is finally still, if he has "shut-down" the destructive force that issues forth lashon hora--his mouth, if the wind is not blowing, then one must only distance himself four amos. If the metzora has, regrettably, not learned his lesson, if he continues to disparage others, spreading his criticism and complaints, then one must distance himself up to one hundred amos. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi represented the next generation. They did not have the self-confidence to withstand the harmful influence of the slanderers. Consequently, they prohibited entering the neighborhood in which the metzoraim lived. Indeed, who can assess the pernicious influence of lashon hora better than its victim?

The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh....and declare him contaminated. (13:3)

The Kohen is the only individual which the Torah authorizes to render a decision regarding a person's tzaraas. This is consistent with the pasuk in Devarim 21:5, "And according to his word, shall be every grievance and every plague." Indeed, if for some reason the Kohen is not proficient in the area of negaim, plagues, Chazal state in Toras Kohanim, that a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, should be asked to observe the plague and instruct the Kohen "shoteh" in the decision to be rendered. The Kesef Mishneh notes the use of the word "shoteh," fool, to describe a Kohen who is not schooled in hilchos negaim. He should be referred to as an am haaretz, illiterate. Why is he called a shoteh? He explains that he is a shoteh only in relation to the Yisrael talmid chacham. Yet, the term seems hardly appropriate, especially in light of the fact that throughout halachic literature one who is unschooled or illiterate is called an am haaretz.

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, offers an insightful response. Many people use the excuse of parnassah, the need to earn a living, as the reason for not designating time for Torah study. They are busy, involved, hard at work, under constant pressure. If they would only demonstrate the same resourcefulness for study as they do for making excuses, they would have sufficient time for Torah study. They, do, however, have a rationale, if not an excuse. What about the Kohen who has no worry about parnassah, who is to be involved in spiritual endeavor throughout the day? Why is he not involved in learning? How can he excuse himself from doing what he is assigned to do? He obviously has wasted his time, doing everything except what he was supposed to do. Such a person is a shoteh! Only a fool wastes his time. We are on this world for a purpose. If we take the precious time allotted to us and waste it, are we not being foolish?

While we do find the concept of a Kohen am ha'aretz in regard to one who is not meticulous in following the laws of tumah and taharah, the basic notion of an illiterate Kohen is described as a Kohen shoteh. This idea can be applied to all those who have time to study, but seek excuses to defer their obligation. They are not simply doing the wrong thing; they are actually foolish!


1. Why does the Torah mention the mitzvah of bris milah a second time in our parsha?

2. What three basic symptoms which, when occurring on tzaraas of the skin, render a metzora definitely tamei?

3. Which type of tzaraas has the shortest quarantine period?

4. Which symptom renders a nesek tamei?

5. If a Kohen has erred and called someone who should have been tamei, tahor, what is the din?

6. When a garment that is made of wool and a synthetic fiber, such as nylon, becomes tamei with tzaraas, may a part of it be salvaged or must the entire garment be burnt?


1. Chazal derive from this repetition that milah is docheh, takes precedence, over Shabbos.

2. The appearance of two white hairs in the affected area; the appearance of raw flesh in the affected area; the spreading of the original spot.

3. Tzaraas appearing in a wound or a burn.

4. A nesek become tamei if a thin yellow hair appears on the spot on his head.

5. The person is not considered tahor.

6. The portion which is synthetic may be cut out and saved.

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