Thursday, April 10, 2008

Striving For Tzara'as

Ever wonder why we no longer experience the malady called tzara'as? Tzara'as is a spiritual illness often mistranslated as leprosy, and the laws regarding this disease are treated in great detail in last week's and this week's Torah portions (Tazri'a and Metzora). According to rabbinic tradition, tzara'as is a divine punishment for malicious gossip. Yet, probably all of us know people who are terrible gossips who never seem to suffer the symptoms described in the Torah. Why is that?

The Ramban (commentary to Lev. 13:47) answers this question based on a verse in Metzora (Lev. 14:34). According to his understanding, the Torah states that tzara'as only afflicts those in the land of Israel. The reason for this, explains the Ramban, is that divine punishment is a gift -- "God rebukes those whom he loves" (Prov. 3:12). God punishes people in order to direct them to fix their broken ways, to repent and better themselves.

Click here to read moreThose who live outside the land of Israel are distant from God's presence. Those (we) people, and others who are distant from God, do not have the privilege of direct messages from Him and therefore do not merit tzara'as. I know, some might be thankful not to have such gifts. But the result is that many people who lack this guidance end up living out their lives as spiritually immature and incomplete beings. Their souls suffer greatly because of this hidden face of God.

This is analogous to other areas in life where those who are distant from God suffer in their lack of direct connection to the divine. The Haggadah, at the beginning of Maggid immediately before the list of the four sons, praises God: "Barukh Ha-Makom barukh hu" God is referred to as Ha-Makom. Why is this specific name used? The same name is used elsewhere in the Haggadah as well: "Ve-akhshav kirevanu Ha-Makom la-avodaso", "Kamah ma'alos tovos la-Makom alenu" Why specifically the name Ha-Makom?

In R. Yosef Adler's recently published Haggadah for Passover with Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (pp. 32-33), R. Adler quotes R. Soloveitchik as explaining that Ha-Makom is a name that refers to a hidden God. The prophet Yechezkel, who lived in Babylonian exile, praised God with "Barukh kevod Hashem mi-mekomo." This directly contrasts with Yishayahu's praise of God, "Kadosh kadosh kadosh melo kol ha-aretz kevodo." Yechezkel, living in exile where God is more hidden from Jews, spoke of a hidden God, the God of Hester Panim (hidden face).

R. Soloveitchik explained that this is why we wish mourners "Ha-Makom yenachem eskhem..." (may God -- Ha-Makom -- comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem). In their time of sorrow, when in their pain they cannot see God's plan for the world, we use the name Ha-Makom to comfort them and not a name that implies closeness to God.

Similarly, our text of the Haggadah, which was intended for the exile (see the Netziv's Haggadah commentary on ke-ha lachma), emphasizes the name Ha-Makom to refer to His hidden face, which is the reason for the many troubles of exile over the centuries. (Until here is the explanation in R. Adler's Haggadah.)

Why did the Holocaust happen? R. Soloveitchik states (Reflections of the Rav, p. 37):

The Holocaust, in contrast, was Hester Panim. We cannot explain the Holocaust but we can, at least, classify it theologically, characterize it, even if we have no answer to the question, "why?" The unbounded horrors represented the tohu vavohu anarchy of the pre-yetzirah state. That is how the world appears when God's moderating surveillance is suspended.
On an individual level, the Rambam famously writes in Moreh Nevukhim (3:17) that the reason many people suffer in this world is that they only merit a lesser degree of God's individual providence. Essentially, God hides his face from them as individuals. If that is the case, how should we personally respond to crises? How do we react to suffering the brunt of God's hidden face? R. Soloveitchik (Halakhic Man, p. 128) suggests that we should see the trouble as a challenge. Our reaction should be to strive to achieve the level that merits individual providence. If God hides His face from us because of our lackings, we need to resolve those flaws and achieve a closer divine relationship.

In the same way, the foreign nature of tzara'as and the exilic nature of our Haggadah text should serve to remind us of our need as individuals and a community to reach for a higher degree of closeness with God.

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