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Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

Outside Israel fell a week behind because the 8th day of Pesach fell on Shabbas. You’ll catch up with a double parsha next week. For the dvar on Shemini, please visit TalkTorah for the connection between snakes, kashrus, the yetzer hara and Egypt.

I’m surrounded by brilliant doctors who grew a bit alarmed when I mentioned that the holiest of people don’t require medical care. Tazria, which focuses on the disease of Tzaras, is the perfect parsha to explore this issue further.

Summary: Tzaras is not leprosy, nor a known illness. It is a spiritual illness solved only by spiritual rectification. Back when we were extremely sensitive to our connection to Hashem, it afflicted us when we slightly deviated, as a sign to encourage us to return. Strangely enough, we should be so sensitive to the importance of our close relationship that we desire Tzaras to return.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

I hope your Omer continues to be an inspiring adventure of growth.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

First things first: Tzaras is not leprosy (Sforno, introduction of Tazria). It is not a known disease. And at least since the destruction of the second temple, it no longer exists.

What’s the proof Tzaras is a spiritual disease, not a known physical one?

1. If some contagious affliction were involved, such that the afflicted is required to be separated from others, “how could one explain that when the affliction strikes a house, it must be emptied of its contents before the Kohen examines it so as to avoid having to declare its contents contaminated? Would not the objects in the house have also been contaminated by the agents of infection?” (Munk, Vayikra 13:12, 14:36).

2. Why would the Torah dedicate an entire chapter to Tzaras if it was only a health concern, and completely ignore the far more common natural dangers of poisonous plants, wild animals and epidemics?   

3. The mere existence of the warnings as theoretical possibilities serves the purpose for which they were intended. In fact, the Talmud confirms tzaras on clothing and houses never occurred (Sanhedrin 71A). Clearly, if the disease mentioned in such detail never occurred, we cannot be simply speaking of a natural disease.

4. There is neither impurity of afflictions of Tzaras nor their purification except by the word of a Kohen, a spiritual leader. The Israelites had medics in their camp but they didn’t treat Tzaras (Rashi, Vay. 13:2). Furthermore, in the words themselves, the afflicted shall be brought to Aaron, the Cohen — the gematria (numerical value) of אל אהרן = 287 =  (doctor)רופא

The Spiritual leader in this case is the only one capable of doing the healing. It’s up to the teacher of the people to reveal the moral cause of their affliction and guide the guilty person back to the right path (Toras Kohanim, 14:35). That’s also why he checks in weekly; in order to give the person time to make a true accounting of his deeds and repent for them.

The Torah points to Tzaras afflictions as a classic example of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses. Even Rambam, the Physician of the royal court of Egypt, emphasizes that the best medication is based on ethical values, for it then tends to re-establish the union between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:27).

The language reveals the essence of the disease and its cure

The language of נגע צרעת , Tzaras affliction/disease can be rearranged word by word into ענג + עצרת, Shabbas and Festivals. The language of Oneg/ענג is of celebration. Let’s break these letters down to reveal their depth.

The letter ע/ Ayin, means eye, or to examine deeply and think about something.

The letter נ / Nun, refers to free will, as a final nun is a long line, stretching from the middle ground to the lowest ground. You can choose to connect to the line or ignore it.

The letter ג/ Gimmel, refers to giving, as in Gimilut Chasidim, doing good deeds, giving to others.

An ענג is when you think deeply about your actions, then you connect them to your free will, and the result is an act of giving. This is worthy of celebration.

A נגע is when you disconnect your free will from careful thinking, apply it in the world and affect others with it, and only afterward use your intellect to rationalize your actions. This is an affliction, which hurts you and the world.

There are two roads open to us, that of tying our thoughts and actions to proper moral behavior and those of rationalizing our inappropriate actions. Correct actions are celebrated, improper ones must be corrected by humbling oneself to a Cohen, a spiritual leader.

So why doesn’t Tzaras still exist?

It was a spiritual affliction only for Jews already at extremely high spiritual levels, for those extremely sensitive to errors and distances in their relationship with Hashem and the Mitzvot. Just as an expert will notice slight deviations in their field that a lay-person wouldn’t, so too a sensitive Jew would notice his slight disconnect and correct it. We know that a rocket into space, if launched a fraction of a degree off or a few seconds behind schedule, will not reach its destination, even though the casual observer noticed no difference. When we reached a state where our disconnects were so great that we would no longer be able to pinpoint which area of defection the Tzaras emerged to correct, the Tzaras no longer served its purpose and went away.     

As strange as it sounds, we should desire Tzaras. The Zohar refers to it as יסורין של אהבה, a chastisement of love. It’s a sign of how much G-d desires to be close to us, that even the bad that happens is meant to return us to the greatest good.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

Why we need doctors

In our world today, we need doctors and although we pray and believe that the power of recovery ultimately lies in G-d’s hands, we recognize the great distance between where we are and where we’d like to be. Almost nobody is at the level where their bitachon in Hashem can justify not seeing doctors.

Rambam understood that although the ideal state is to be so connected that the Kohanim provide the cure, not the doctors, in our times, and for thousands of years, the doctors are vital for our survival and among the most important professions. Love your doctors, for they give us the strength to live healthy lives.

But one day, may we hope to once again reach this even higher level, when we feel so closely connected to Hashem that we can attribute every deviation in our lives to a specific disconnect, and in correcting our moral stumbles, reach a level of love and joy unprecedented in our days.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman


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Parshas Bo — G-d’s Movie: Visualizing Transcendence

Dear Friends and Family,

What an exciting time this week. The Jews get their first commandments from Moses (starting with Rosh Chodesh, moving on to Pesach), the Egyptians get the last three Makkot, and the long journey to the land of milk and honey begins.

One line summary: Visualizing the best possible you and acting as if you’re already there is the fastest way to maximize your time and abilities.

Parshas Bo: Loving Torah and G-d works at Every Age

The brief idea: Torah is the only material that can challenge and be understood by five year old and 75 year old alike, and both can be right in their understanding if they approach with the right attitude. Moreover, it is the only text that both 5 and 75 year old can talk to each other about, and both will be interested and perhaps, both will learn something new.

The converse is not true. There are masses who approach Torah with the wrong attitude, and whether they are young or the highest IQ academic, they will come out with extremely incorrect and wrong understanding.

We see this with Pharaoh and his ministers at the beginning of Parshas Bo. Pharaoh and his ministers are the most powerful and intelligent in the kingdom, and though they constantly admit the error of their ways (“I have sinned, Hashem is the Righteous One and I and my people are the wicked ones,” says Pharaoh at the end of last week [9:27]), they immediately come up with rationalizations upon relief. A person who always wants to justify his current ego-driven life and beliefs will never be able to grow. Thus, even a child brought up the right way understands Torah more than the lifelong atheistic academic.

Even when Pharaoh is ready to let the people go, he refuses to let the children go (Shemos 10:10). Even when he agrees to let the children go, he refuses to let the animals go (10:24). Every new discovery, every ounce of insight into Torah, causes him to only budge an inch. It’s beyond him to consider the complete truth, the complete value of what he’s experiencing. Thus, every new revelation is painful instead of glorious, every insight into Torah wisdom is a concession instead of a delight.      

May you be blessed to delight in Torah insights and build a world and family of love and learning.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Parshas Bo — G-d’s Movie: Visualizing Transcendence

This week introduces three of the four sons from the Pesach Seder Hagada. The wise son will wait until Devarim (6:20). What’s the advice given? In the future, when your children ask about your observances, tell your…

Wicked Son: “Hashem skipped over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but He saved our households” (Shemos 12:27).

One who doesn’t know how to ask: “It is on account of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt” (13:8).

Simple Son: “With a strong hand, Hashem removed us from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (13:14).

   A generation later, what’s the message we pass down? Holding onto the mental image of leaving Egypt. Visualizing what we’re living for and what we came from is the single most powerful way to hold on to our Judaism.

Rav Dessler says in the name of the Gershaz, “What skill most develops Gedolim (the most brilliant and learned leaders) of Klal Yisrael? The Power of Imagery.

Judaism has known the power of imagery long before the age of movie screens and portable cameras. The Yetzer Hara’s biggest tool is imagery. It appeals to you with false visions of immediate pleasures, of material desires, nearly always through emotion-sense triggered imagery. But the most powerful tools of our baser instinct can also be used powerfully by us. Fight images with images.

The Piacetzner Rebbe served as Grand Rabbi of Piascetzno, Poland until he was murdered in a Nazi camp in 1943. He wrote a personal diary of his spiritual growth called Tzav V’zeiruz, the only personal diary in publication by someone of his stature in Jewish learning and leadership. There he writes that a person becomes great by “envisioning your ideal spiritual self: envision yourself as already the ideal spiritual person you really are. Just imagine the greatness of your soul… see how your soul shines in G-d’s garden, in Eden… Meditate deeply on these pictures…hold these images in your mind’s eye…inevitably you will be aroused to a higher awareness…savor the bliss of embrace by the great Creator as you yearn to actualize this from the depths of your soul.”

During the Rosh Chodesh Amidah this week, I took a minute to first imagine myself as an older, wizened, version of myself. My posture straighter, my opinion more respected, an advisor and partner to an incredible leader. Then I imagined myself giving a report and holding a business meeting with that leader, only able to see His throne, knowing he was listening to every word. So I spoke clearly and professionally, humbly but with confidence, going over the outline of points to discuss one by one. My Amidah was extremely powerful, more so than it has been in months. All because of visualization.

The Sefer HaChinuch gives reasons behind the Mitzvos, listing each one in the order they appear in Chumash. The sixteenth commandment appears in this parsha, specifically, “You shall not break a bone of it” [the Passover offering] (Shemos 12:46). Rashi explains that these bones “are fit for eating, which has meat on it.”

The Sefer HaChinuch explains: “At the root of the precept lies the purpose to have us remember the miracles of Egypt…For it is not a way of honor for royal princes and counsellors of the land to scrape the bones and break them like dogs. This is fit only for the hungry poor of the people to do. Therefore, at the beginning of our emergence to become the choice of all nations, a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation (Shemos 19:6) and again every year at the same time, it is fitting for us to perform deeds which reflect the great degree of excellence to which we rose that hour. Through the action and the symbol that we perform, we set this matter in our souls permanently.”

One last beautiful point on the power of visualization comes from Rav Nachman. He says that when we dream, we visualize an entire story compounding hours or weeks or years within a few seconds of measurable time. But just as we are completely immersed in the dream world until the moment we awake, so too in this world we feel completely immersed until we “awake”. When we don’t visualize a big goal for our lives, a measurement of success in the direction we’re heading, then days, weeks, years, or decades can pass by in a whirl. Looking back, we might have trouble figuring out where all that time went. In our memories, large chunks of time can take on the nature of the dream.

The solution is twofold, and both involve visualization. First, visualize what you want to accomplish in this life, and constantly check yourself to make sure your thoughts and actions are aligned with that goal. A famous Harvard Case Study found that graduates with a concrete five-year plan were far more successful than those with higher GPAs but no clear vision.

Second, visualize that all our actions and thoughts in this world are but a dream for the world to come. Recognize that every event in your life plays a role in encouraging you toward G-d’s path, and the more you perfect yourself and bring out your greatness within, the more you’re likely to succeed in your spirituality and personal growth.

May you be blessed to visualize our redemption from Egypt in your every day struggles, and may your biggest image of yourself simply be the beginning of unlocking your true greatness.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman