While tzoraas is usually described as leprosy or some other disease, in fact it is not a disease at all, but a signal from Hashem to repent and do teshuvah for various sins.
On Shevi’i Shel Pesach, we read Parshas Beshalach and the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The posuk (Shemos 15:26) states, “Kol hamachalah asher samti beMitzrayim lo asim alecha ki ani Hashem rofecha.” Hashem promises that if we follow His mitzvos, He will not bring upon us any of the diseases He brought upon the Mitzriyim.
The ailments and diseases that befell the Mitzriyim were purely Divine punishment for their treatment of the Jews. There was no cure for them.
When a person is infected by illness, it is similar to a vaccine. The vaccine works by planting a strain of the illness in the body, weak enough for the body to fight off. The process strengthens and inoculates the person from the disease. The sickness itself is what causes good health. We believe that disease and yissurim are for a higher purpose, sometimes perceived, sometimes obvious, and often times not. We trust that our Doctor has our best interests in mind. We therefore say, “Ki Ani Hashem rofecha.” If He wishes it so, then we will be healed.
The name of the new month, Chodesh Iyar, is comprised of the roshei teivos of that very posuk: Ani Hashem rofecha. Iyar is said to be a month with a heightened power of healing and refuah.
It is interesting that in this month of healing, the students of Rabi Akiva died and much tragedy was heaped upon the Jewish people. Healing is not magic. We have to earn it. When we sin, catastrophe ensues. When we repent, recovery is enabled. Talmidei Rabi Akiva were felled during Iyar, but the plague was also stopped during Iyar on Lag Ba’omer. There was much sadness during this month, but also much redemption. We don’t always merit appreciating the cause and effect. Many of the ways of the L-rd are mysterious, and it often takes years of hindsight to be able to perceive what transpired, but we must know that we are overseen by Ani Hashem rofecha, during Iyar and all year around.
Herbs, which are at the root of medicine, begin growing, along with the rest of nature, this month. It is often said that physical aspects of creation reflect spiritual realities. Thus, we can say that since Iyar is a time of personal growth and healing for us, the rest of the natural world also experiences growth and regeneration. This serves as a reminder to us of our opportunities and ability to regenerate.
The Chazon Ish would say that each generation experiences a new class of diseases for which there is no cure. In generations prior, people would die from typhus, smallpox and measles, and desperate people hoped valiantly for the day that medication would be found to cure them. Once the world was rid of those feared maladies, new diseases were diagnosed and spread, without the ability to cure them.
This is to remind us that Hashem is the Rofei cholim. Doctors are His messengers. They do not hold the key to cures unless the Creator wills it so.
In truth, this is explicit in the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Mikvaos 11:12) in his closing remarks on the topic of purification:
“Impurity is not filth that can be washed away with water, but, rather, a scriptural decree that calls for intent of focus of the heart. Chazal therefore teach that one who immersed but did not intend to purify himself is considered as not having been toiveled.
“Although it is a gezeiras hakasuv, there is an allusion inherent in the act of tevilah. One who focuses his heart on purity is indeed cleansed through immersion, even though there was no noticeable change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on removing the contamination of the soul – namely, evil thoughts and negative character traits – becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge.”
Thus, it is the sacred role of the kohein to determine whether a person is a metzora or not. The task of the kohein is to bring people closer to Hashem through removing sin, which causes separation between man and his Maker. He helps people purify themselves. Tzora’as is not a medical condition. It arises from cheit, and thus the kohein intercedes to help the victim repent from his chatto’im, which brought about his condition. He then achieves the desired healing.
We are familiar with the posuk (Tehillim 34:13) which states, “Mi ha’ish hechofeitz chaim oheiv yomim liros tov. Netzor leshoncha meira usefosecha midabeir mirma.” One who desires life should be careful not to use his mouth for bad purposes and not to speak improperly.
We know that tzora’as is a punishment for people who do not follow the admonitions of that posuk and speak ill of others. Those who do not appreciate other people, who are not concerned about the feelings of others, or who cavalierly destroy reputations of fellow Jews, are punished and banished from the camp. For seeking to create separation between the people they gossiped about and their communities, they are placed in isolation.
In the town of Radin, there was a group of progressive Jewish freethinkers called the Poalei Tzion who used mockery and cynicism as a means of undermining the traditions of the yeshiva world, utilizing their writing abilities to pen works demonizing yeshivos. They prepared a booklet filled with barbs and slurs to vilify the yerei’im ushleimim. Some Radiner bochurim learned of the plan and descended on the Poalei Tzion headquarters. They scooped up the hateful materials and carried the bundles of booklets back to their yeshiva, where they tossed them into the furnace.
The next day, Poalei Tzion activists came to work and saw what had happened. They quickly found clues revealing the identity of the perpetrators and headed to the yeshiva. There, in the furnace, they found burnt remnants of their hard work.
They announced a war on the bochurim, threatening physical attacks and more. They began their retaliation campaign at the home of the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, where they stormed in to announce their plans.
The leader spoke with particular chutzpah, and almost as soon as the brazen words left his mouth, he fell to the ground. His eyes bulged and a random stream of words came out of his mouth. He had lost his mind.
His frightened friends led him away and the news soon spread. The young man had gone insane.
The story, in today’s parlance, went viral.
A few days later, the story reached the preeminent Haskalah newspaper, Heint, based in Warsaw. In a fiery editorial, they took issue with the rabbon shel Yisroel. “Is this the Chofetz Chaim, known for the work he authored on the laws of lashon hora?” they asked. “How can someone who preaches love of Jews curse another Jew?”
Rav Shalom Schwadron would often retell this story and point out the hypocrisy and duplicity of agenda-driven people. While acknowledging the spiritual greatness and powers of the Chofetz Chaim, they refused to admit that the way of life they so disdained invested him with his abilities.
The Chofetz Chaim took the unusual step of responding to the newspaper.
“In response to your report that I cursed the young man, chas veshalom, I have never cursed another Jew. In response to your report that he has been stricken with madness, that is indeed true, and that is because mit yeshiva bochurim fangt men nisht uhn, one doesn’t start up with yeshiva bochurim.”
The mistake made by the editors of Heint is an error we all risk making. Man creates his own tzora’as. It is not curses or bad luck that cause tzora’as.
We no longer merit this precise Divine message. We speak lashon hora at will and think that we won’t suffer any consequence, but a discerning eye sees a different truth.
The loving Rofei sends us hints of disapproval. We are beset by aches and pains, and at times ailments. We go to the doctor, fill prescriptions, and seek to be healed. We are lulled into thinking that the sickness or pain is caused and cured by something physical.
How wrong we are.
Sometimes, we tackle life’s serious issues like children, who try to copy what they have seen others do. They grab their tools and attempt to repair their broken toys. As well-intentioned as they are, and as many tools as there are in their box, they cannot fix what is broken.
Since they haven’t been through the vicissitudes of life, there is no way they can succeed on their own.
Life is a long learning process. As we grow and learn, we are enabled to overcome the many challenges we face. If we act maturely and intelligently, we are better able to remain healthy, strong and vivacious. If we seek complete recovery and a pain-free existence, we have to know that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah. Every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.
Children see everything in a superficial way. They lack the experience, the trial and error that give older people the tools to properly analyze situations.
Maturity dictates that we face up to our challenges and concede that they are messages. The Gemara in Maseches Avoda Zara (55a) quotes the words of a posuk that we recite in the tefillah of Nishmas each Shabbos: “chola’im ra’im vene’emonim – harsh and faithful diseases.” How can illness be referred to as faithful?
The Gemara explains that they are faithful to keep the promise they make. They have a mission, dispatched from Heaven for a reason, for a specific amount of time. Once that time elapses, they are directed to leave a person’s body. They are faithful to that oath.
The truest path to complete recovery and pain-free existence isn’t calling a toll-free number for a free sample of some questionable product with enthusiastic endorsements from people claiming to have been healed. It is from the awareness that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah and every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.
In our days, we don’t suffer from tzora’as. That is not a blessing. It is a curse. Were tzora’as still prevalent, we would no doubt minimize our speaking of lashon hora. It would disappear from our midst. The cause and effect would be plainly evident.
And it’s not only tzora’as. It’s all diseases. It’s not only lashon hora. It’s all the aveiros. The Medrash teaches that there are ten parshiyos of negoim, just as there are ten cardinal mitzvos. If Am Yisroel observes the Aseres Hadibros, then Hashem protects them from negoim. However, if they disobey the Aseres Hadibros, they are plagued.
We have to recognize that our tumah, taharah and welfare depend on our actions. The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (20a) teaches, “Torah magna umatzla,” Torah fortifies and protects. We know that “tzedakah tatzil mimovess,” charity saves one from death (Mishlei 10:2).
Just as tzedakah has the power to save us from death, tefillah has the power to bring about salvation. Torah surrounds us with armor in the face of punishment. Every act we perform, including the way we think and speak, has the ability to determine the quality of our lives.
The posuk (Vayikra 18:5) states, “Ushemartem es chukosai v’es mishpotai asher yaaseh osam ha’adam vochai bohem.” If you will observe My mitzvos, they will give you life. From this posuk we derive that pikuach nefesh is docheh Shabbos. That means that the posuk is not speaking only in an allegorical sense – that mitzvah observance enhances life – but in a very literal sense as well. Observance of the Torah’s chukim and mishpotim is life-inducing.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l went to visit a very sick person, Mr. Hutzin. The patient’s life was one of sickness and suffering, with nary a ray of anything good. Rav Isser Zalman sat at the man’s bedside silently, wondering what words of consolation he could offer him. He was thinking that if he couldn’t relieve the man of any of his many illnesses, the least he could do was offer words of encouragement.
He began speaking words of chizuk and telling Mr. Hutzin to never give up on receiving Hashem’s salvation.
The man responded to the rosh yeshiva, “Are you attempting to give me strength? Are you explaining to me why I shouldn’t give up and just sink into a depression because of my many ailments?
“If that is your intention, you are wasting your time. I don’t need that type of chizuk. Do you want to hear something? Despite all that I have been through, I have never stopped being happy with my yissurim,” Mr. Hutzin said.
“How can that be?” asked Rav Meltzer. “How can you tell me that you are besimchah despite all your yissurim? You have had no break from pain and suffering.”
“Let me explain,” said the man as he lay on his sickbed in agony. “Recently, a man was sentenced to jail for two years. You would expect that man to be sad; you’d think he’d have tears pouring down his cheeks after hearing the judge read the sentence. Yet, he was full of joy. Instead of crying, he was smiling. Instead of sadness, there was joy. He even thanked the judge!
“As they left the courtroom, a crowd surged to follow the condemned man. ‘Why are you so happy?’ they called out to him as he was led away. ‘Why the smiles?’
“‘Let me explain it to you,’ he said. ‘The crime I was convicted of carries a 25-year sentence. I could have been put away for up to 25 years of hard time. Instead, I got two years in minimum security. Of course I’m happy. In two years, I’ll be back home with my family and friends.’
“So too with me,” Mr. Hutzin finished. “The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) says, ‘Ein yissurim belo avon, there is no suffering without sin.’ I have sinned and Hashem is punishing me for what I have done. He could have treated me much worse. He could have saved the punishments for Olam Haba. Instead, He is cleaning me now of my sins, and in Olam Haba I will be free to enjoy. Should I not be happy? I am getting off easy. I don’t need you to console me. I don’t need to hear words of chizuk. I am quite happy, for I know that I deserve a lot worse and am getting off easy.”
This story resonates with us intellectually and emotionally. We all recognize the truth and wisdom in the man’s words. And though it may be difficult to live that way, we aim to reach that level.
Dovid Hamelech sang, “Shivtecha umishantecha heima yenachamuni – Your rod and staff comfort me.” Baalei mussar teach that the comfort Dovid Hamelech derived from Hashem’s “rod and staff” was similar to the comfort a stray sheep receives from the prodding tap of its master. The wayward sheep had veered from the path and group. It was lost, alone and afraid. Finally, it was found by the shepherd, who hit it with his staff. Along with the blow came a sense of belonging, of being watched over once again, and of being cared for. The stick striking its back stung, but it was comforting nonetheless.
At the shivah for Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l, his children recounted that their father never raised his voice to rebuke them and never slapped them. One of the children asked him how he understood a posuk that seems to indicate that smacking children is a sign of love: “Choseich shivto sonei beno – One who withholds the stick hates his son” (Mishlei 13:24).
Rav Wosner told his son, “The posuk does not mean that a father should hit his son. Rather, the explanation is that a wise father learns to keep a stick nearby to remind his son of its existence. The stick is a tool, but the loving father finds a way not to have to use it.”
He uses it by not using it. The threat is ever-present and the child toes the line because of it.
We have seen and experienced the Divine staff all too often. Like frightened sheep, we have been prodded back to the flock, influenced to stay on the correct path. We see through the darkness and appreciate the message that after making many mistakes, Hashem still hopes for our return. He hasn’t forgotten us, even for a moment.
Ki anu tzonecha, ve’Atah Roeinu.
May we all experience true refuah in this new month of Ani Hashem Rofecha. May all individuals suffering from disease be cured, and may all that plagues our community be rectified so that we can speedily merit the ultimate healing.
Dovid Hamelech says in the 15th chapter of Tehillim, “Hashem, who merits to inhabit your tent, to live on Your holy mountain? He who walks purely, does justice and speaks truth from his heart. Slander doesn’t appear on his tongue; he doesn’t wrong his friend and doesn’t slur those close to him. He despises contemptible people and honors those who fear Hashem. He keeps his word and oath even when it hurts him. He doesn’t take interest for lending people money and never accepts bribes. Whoever possesses these characteristics will never falter.”
In these days of Iyar and Sefirah, as we study the parshiyos of tzora’as, let us begin our march back to good health by reforming how we deal with each other, giving attention to our middos and observance of the mitzvos, chukim and mishpotim.
May all those who suffer find relief; may all the ill be healed; all the lonely comforted, and may we all merit the geulah sheleimah bemeheirah.