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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshios Tazria-Metzora 5773 "Universal Humility"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The coach of Penn State’s football team, Joe Paterno, relates that one day, while looking in the mirror, he asked his wife how many great football coaches she thought there were. She immediately replied, “One less than you think.”

The gemara[1] notes that the spiritual affliction of tzara’as is, not only a punishment for slander, but also for the sins of murder, taking a false oath, immorality, haughtiness, robbery, and selfishness.

The common denominator between those sins is a lack of sensitivity or regard for others - physically, emotionally, or financially.

When one notices what appears to be tzara’as, on his home, clothes, or skin he is obligated to show it to a kohain for evaluation. If the kohain surmises that it is indeed tzara’as, the metzora is temporarily expelled from his home and community, and must spend a specific amount of time in isolation. During that time he is to contemplate his mistreatment of his fellow man.

When the tzara’as is finally healed, the metzora must bring a korban (offering) along with various other specified materials to the Bais Hamikdash, including a crimson thread and hyssop.

“The kohain shall command; and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread, and hyssop.[2]” Rashi comments that the thread is wool dyed with a pigment made from a lowly creature, a type of insect or snail, whose identity is unclear. Hyssop comes from a lowly bush. Thus, both ingredients symbolize the penitent’s newfound humility.

There is a notable difference between the symbolism of the hyssop and the crimson thread. Although the hyssop comes from a humble bush, it is above ground. The string of crimson wool however, receives its color from an insect which crawls beneath the earth. It would seem then, that the crimson wool represents a more extreme level of humility than the hyssop. If so, why was it necessary for the penitent metzora to bring both materials; why couldn’t he just bring the crimson wool?

Brichas Ish[3] explains that humility is a difficult character trait to master. By nature we crave attention and enjoy asserting our superiority above others. It entails a very healthy sense of internal self-worth and pride to reach a level where one does not feel the desire to advocate his merits and worthiness.

The crimson dye used for the metzora’s thread comes from a creature that lives underground. The insect is not stuffed into the ground, but goes there on its own volition. The crimson thread symbolizes to the metzora that he should not always be seeking external glory and honor. He must build self-confidence, until he no longer constantly needs the approval and accolades of others. However, even this great level of humility leaves something to be desired.

The lowly hyssop bush grows just a few inches above the ground. It is constantly trampled on by others, easily sways in the wind, and when it rains the hyssop is forced to wallow in the mud created surrounding it. The hyssop symbolizes to the metzora that true penitence will be achieved when he achieves the humility of the hyssop. It takes true humility for one to bear his degradation in silence, i.e. to be able to ‘grin and bear it’. The sins of the metzora, caused by conceit and an attitude of cavalier apathy, is rectified by his developing an unassuming nature, by reaching a level where is ‘above’ caring about the negative comments of others.

Humility is not achieved when all is well and life is peachy but rather when times are trying and challenging. There are those who mistakenly think that humility includes self abnegation and belittlement. What a tragic misunderstanding! In truth, the humble person has a strong appreciation for himself and therefore does not feel a need to promote himself and therefore is not shaken by hurtful comments. The truly humble person is not abashed to shoulder blame and to admit his failures. It is this great level of humility which the metzora must strive for. When he achieves such a level of humility, he will no longer feel a need to say negative comments about others, or seek to asset his superiority over others.

In Parshas Shemini, the Torah records that when the “seven days of practice” were completed it was time for the inauguration of the Service on the first day of Nissan.

"Moshe said to Aharon, ‘Approach the altar and perform your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, atoning for yourself and for the people…’.'"[4]

Rashi explains, "Moshe had to instruct Aharon to do so, because Aharon was bashful and afraid to approach the altar. Moshe said to him: 'Why are you ashamed? For this you have been chosen’!”

Moshe was telling Aaron that this was his role in life, his calling, and he shouldn't be ashamed, but should come forward and accept it.

The Arizal explained that Moshe was telling Aharon “For the very fact that you are ashamed[5], that’s why you have been chosen’. Had Aharon approached with a more cavalier attitude then he would not be the one for the job. It was precisely because he regarded himself as inadequate and unworthy for the job that he was chosen for it.

Many of our greatest leaders did not regard themselves as worthy of leadership. It was only when it was cast upon them that they embraced the role.

The Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz zt’l, lived a life of extreme Torah scholarship and saintliness out of the limelight until the last decades of his life.

Rav Aharon Leib Steinman was virtually unknown outside of B’nei Brak until the last two decades. Rav Chaim Kanievsky holds no official position. The world flocks to him for advice and guidance which he graciously gives. But personally, he would unquestionably rather be learning peacefully and uninterruptedly.

They did not pursue honor and in fact shunned it, until they saw that it was their destiny to fill the vacuum of Torah leadership, and they begrudgingly accepted it.

Rav Avrohom Pam zt’l noted[6] that humility is not defined by actions, nor is it a mode of behavior. Humility is rooted in one’s mindset and internal attitude.

There are people who ‘run away from honor’. They do not accept public honor or recognition, and they shy away from the limelight. Such people may even offer to be called up to the Torah for the aliyah containing the harsh tochacha, claiming that such things don’t bother them. However, if someone would reproach them gently for something they did, they may become very angry and respond harshly.

Or perhaps they may even appear to not care about negative comments made to him, but inside he may be burning with rage that he is embarrassed to express because it will hurt his humble façade. That is not humility.

The truly humble person is one who has invested requisite effort in working on his character traits, until he has gained a level of mastery over himself. It is only such a person who will truly not be offended when a harsh comment is made to him.

The humble person does not remain silent in the face of a personal affront because he is shy and lacks assertiveness. He remains silent because he is truly not offended or bothered by the comment or action.[7]

Rav Pam quotes the story of Rav Nachumka of Hurdina who was once collecting money for tzedakah. When he approached one fellow and requested a donation, the fellow responded by brazenly slapping Rav Nachumke across the face. Without batting an eyelash, Rav Nachumke replied, “That’s for me. But I also need something for the poor people.”

The Rambam wrote a letter to a scholar who had taken upon himself the defense of the Rambam’s honor from harsh critics. The Rambam wrote that, “even if I heard with my own ears my shame, I wouldn’t be particular about it. I would forgive it immediately.” The Rambam continued that one should not waste time defending his own honor. It’s too trivial, and there are better ways for one to utilize his time.

Rav Pam notes that this idea must be reiterated and understood: Humility is not defined by actions, but by one’s attitude and mindset!

“For the person being purified… crimson thread and hyssop”

“For this you have been chosen!”

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[1] Arachin 16a

[2] 14:4

[3] Rabbi Avrohom Shain shlita

[4] Vayikra 9:7

[5] The first word of Rashi, simply read as ‘lamah – Why” can also be read “limah – for the fact“

[6] Haggadah Mareh Kohain, p. 223

[7] Telling a child who is constantly being offended to ‘just ignore it’ is not

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