Sunday, April 15, 2007

Metzora, Vayikra 14:4. Purifying the Metzora: Cedar, Scarlet, and Hyssop

In the process of purifying himself, a Metzora must use Eitz Erez (cedar wood), Shni Sola’as, (wool dyed red with the extract of a nematode, a worm-like insect), and Eizov (hyssop, a fragrant herbaceous plant). Rashi brings that Chazal say that the eizov and tola’as symbolize shiflus, to remind the metzora that he must be humble and low like the low growing hyssop and the tola’as, to never be a gahs ru’ach, haughty. So what it the purpose of the erez? Erez, Cedar, always symbolizes might, great height, and towering majesty. This seems to contradict the symbolism of the other ingredients. What use is it to describe the symbolic content of two of the ingredients, without addressing the fact that the most obvious symbolic content of the third is diametrically opposed? Rashi says that the Erez tells the Metzora that it was his ga'avah that brought him to his sorry condition, and that he must learn to be more like the Eizov and Shni Tola'as. Still, if the Erez represents his failure it is surprising that it would be one of the elements of his purification.

The Pardes Yosef brings from R’ Bunim, a talmid of the Baal Shem Tov, that a person should have two pockets. In one pocket he should carry“Onochi tola’as velo ish,” I am a worm, not a man, and in the other he should carry “bishvili nivro ho’olom,” it was for me that the world was created. (I know, I know. What he brings from Reb Bunim is, for us Litvaks, a very well known aphorism of the Alter of Slabodkeh, perhaps even definitive of the Alter's oeuvre, but I wanted to quote something in print.) (See also there where he brings a Chasam Sofer from Shabbos 140 that uses this approach to explain a strange little gemora there about buying vegetables.) He says that the Chidushei HaR’IM says that sometimes you need a kapara for gasus horu’ach, and sometimes you need a kaporo for anivus.

One must point out, though, that you never have to do tshuvoh for anivus, and ‘bishvili nivra” should be understood in its context: The idea is to be confident and not self-destructively diffident, to know when to say like Hillel in Ovos 1:14 K’she’ani le’atzmi mah ahni and when to say Im ani kahn hakohl kahn. Like R’ Moshe says: it says “vayivez Eisov es habecharah.” How was he m’vazeh the bechorah? He said “hinei anochi holeich lamus v’lamah zeh li bechorah?” The answer is that if a person has an opportunity to do a great thing for a tzibbur, to be a manhig, to be a moreh hora’ah, and he declines for all the logical reasons in the world,that’s called being mevazeh the bechorah.

The Torah never wants a person to just be an eizov. A person needs to be both an Eizov and an Erez. As Reb Chaim Volozhiner says in the Ru’ach Chaim in Avos 4:1, when Aharon was first told to do the Avodah in the Mishkan, Rashi brings the Medrash that the Mizbei'ach appeared to Aharon as if it were a horned bull, because he remembered his part in the sin of the Egel, and he was afraid to be crowned Kohen Gadol, to be the primary executor of all the Avodah in the Mishkan. Moshe told him, "Go, it is for this that you were entrusted." Anivus and regret for past failures cannot stand in the way of doing one’s tafkid. But only after recognizing that the opportunity was not earned, that it is God's grace that enables us to live, and and do teshuva, and to overcome weakness and failure, and to pursue redemption and significance, only then can we properly serve God and accomplish good in this world.

Whenever Eizov is prescribed, Erez must be prescribed as well.

(By the way, I know that Rav Saadia says that Eizov is Oregano, and that it cannot be what we call Hyssop.  But I can't imagine the Tahara process smelling like Pizza.)


  1. Cedar also has properties that drive away all rot and wear (sin). In this way the cedar is no longer contradictory to the hyssop, but rather they build on each other.

  2. Interesting observation. Cedar certainly has antibacterial and anti-insect properties. I wonder about hyssop.