A Bit of Humility Goes a Long Way


By Rabbi Simcha Zevit

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

This week’s double parsha, Tazria-Metzora, contains a long discussion of tzara’at and the elaborate rituals of purification necessary for its cure.

Tzara’at is primarily a skin disease that can take many different forms. In Tazria, we read about tzara’at that appears as white or red lesions of the skin. In Metzora, we see that particularly bad cases can spread, seemingly as some kind of fungus, on one’s clothing, belongings and on the walls of one’s home.

According to rabbinic commentary, tzara’at is caused by sin. This makes it a disease that is part medical condition, part spiritual pathology. Based on the narratives in Torah in which someone gets tzara’at, the rabbis of the Talmud (Arakhin 16a) trace its roots to one of seven ways in which people have gone astray: gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft and envy.

While we may wonder why Torah speaks of rashes and fungus in such great detail, it is often said that in Torah, every letter counts and every word has meaning.

Hidden in the midst of descriptions of tzara’at that has affected the walls of the home, there is one small letter, a kaf, which leads us to a whole new take on what these passages are all about. In Leviticus 14:35, we read that when a nega tzara’at (a plague of tzara’at) erupts on the walls of one’s home, the owner of the house is to come to the priest, saying k’nega nireh li babayit — “It seems to me that something like a plague [of tzara’at] is in my house.”

The kaf that makes this interesting is in the word k’nega — something like a plague. Why doesn’t the verse just say a nega, a plague, has appeared?

Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, comments on this, saying, “Even if the owner of the home is a Torah scholar and feels certain that what he sees is actually tzara’at, he should still say, ‘It appears to me that something like a plague [of tzara’at]’ is in my house, rather than saying it is definitely tzara’at.” That little kaf — the letter of “it appears as if” — gives us a big lesson in humility.

Someone who is humble has learned well the Talmud’s advice, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Brachot 4a). The kaf leaves room for self-doubt, for someone else to know more, for the possibility of a mistake. Since tzara’at is associated by our sages with sins that essentially are based in arrogance — a sense that I am more important than the next person and, therefore, I can do and say as I please — that little kaf demonstrates that the first step in curing tzara’at is to speak and act humbly with respect for what the other person has to say.

Let’s assume the owner of the house is someone who tends to have a need to know it all and to communicate their certainty without leaving room for valuing the opinions of others. He or she shows a willingness to change by speaking modestly, saying he thinks it may be a nega tzara’at, even if the situation at first glance seems unequivocally clear. The “plague” in the house can be seen as a wake-up call for its owner to come down a notch or two in self-importance, and to work on the middah, or character trait, of humility.

Being humble does not mean that one never makes a strong, definitive statement, or that one always concedes to others. It’s about balancing the recognition of all that we know with all that we don’t know, and all that we already are with all that we have yet to become. Humility also puts our own needs and desires on par with those of others.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Psischke teaches that to balance one’s merit with one’s lack thereof, one should carry two notes in his pockets. The note in the right pocket reads: “The world was created for my sake.” The note in the left pocket says: “I am but dust and ashes.” Humility lies in the middle of these two extremes.

This point is demonstrated in the ritual cure for nega tzara’at. The sacrificial offering the priest makes on behalf of the arrogant homeowner with tzara’at on the walls uses both cedar wood, the tallest of trees, and hyssop, a lowly plant that grows close to the ground. The mixture of these ingredients, the exalted and the lowly, helps one to find the middle ground.

These two parshiyot can serve as reminders that there are consequences to walking through the world with an arrogant mind or heart; and the effects of arrogance can play out both physically and spiritually.

When we think we know it all, when we treat others with anything less than the recognition that we are all created in God’s image, or when we fail to admit our inevitable doubts and uncertainties in the midst of life’s challenges, perhaps (note the perhaps here) we need an injection of a kaf — of “it appears as if,” and “it seems to me.” What do you think?  

Rabbi Simcha Zevit serves as rabbi for the Narberth Havurah and as a chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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