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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Metzora 5774 "Appropriate Instruction"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates that a woman went to visit her ailing friend one hot summer day. The patient was lying in a hospital bed receiving medicine through an intravenous, hooked up to a number of machines and monitors. The visitor walked in to the hospital room in an exasperated huff. She looked at the patient and commented, “You know, you’re lucky to be here for three reasons: You have air conditioning, your meals are on time, and you don’t have to sit in traffic for hours!”

A moment later a nurse burst into the room and began shouting at the visitor: “Get out! Get out! I don’t know what you said to my patient, but her monitors just started going crazy! Get out and don’t come back!”

Although it manifests in a physical manner, the affliction of tzaraas is a spiritual malady which comes as a result of iniquity or negative character traits. One afflicted with tzaraas was obligated to leave the main camp and to live in isolation until he was pronounced pure.

When the tzaraas finally diminished, the metzora[1] underwent a tri-faceted purification process. The first step involved the ritual offering of two birds outside the camp. The next step was for the Kohain to shave off all the hair from the metzora’s body. The third and final stage required the metzora to bring three animal offerings, each accompanied by a meal-offering, to the Temple.

The Torah concludes its directive regarding the laws of tzaraas by stating “This is the law for every tzaraas affliction…to rule on which day it is contaminated and on which day it is purified; this is the law of tzaraas.”[2]

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt’l notes that the word “להורות” does not only mean to rule but also to instruct[3]. This is the source for the ruling of the Medrash[4] that, “A Kohain may not examine tzaraas afflictions until his teacher instructed him (how to do so).”

Rabbi Sorotzkin explains that although many forms of wisdom can be acquired from books, there is much knowledge that can only be learned through observation. The art of examining and ruling about the status of tzaraas afflictions falls into the latter category. Tzaraas required a personal training process because the role of the Kohain was also to admonish the metzora. He was to say to him, “My son, the tzaraas afflictions comes only as a result of the sin of deleterious speech”[5]. In order to admonish someone who is disease-ridden and suffering in a productive manner, one must know how to speak gently and deferentially.

This point is clearly demonstrated in the story of Iyov (Job). When Iyov’s three friends came to console him for his myriad losses, they preached to him about morality. For doing so they were reprimanded by G-d: “Because you did not speak correctly to Me like My servant Iyov”[6]. Rashi explains that G-d was telling them, “Weren’t Iyov’s sorrow and sufferings enough, that you had to add to them… and criticize him.”

The Kohain examining tzaraas learns how to do so from his teacher, who learned from his teacher, who learned from his teacher, etc. in an unbroken chain that traces back to Aharon the High Priest. Aharon’s sensitivity and love for his fellow man was legendary and unparalleled. The Mishnah[7] states about Aharon: “He loved peace and pursued peace; he loved people and brought them close to Torah”.

The art of productive admonishment originated with Aharon, the consummate lover of others. It was he who was able to guide the metzora toward repentance and rectification of the sins that caused his tzaraas, by using sympathetic and insightful words.

Knowledge of the appropriate way to speak with the metzora is necessary, not only on the day when he is contaminated, but also on the day when he is purified. On his purification day, the metzora must receive guidance that will help him learn to conduct himself properly so that he will not repeat his folly in the future.

For this reason the Torah states, “To rule on which day it is contaminated and on which day it is purified.” The Kohain must learn from his teacher how to sympathize with the metzora’s pain, “on the day when he is contaminated”, as well as how to rejoice in his happiness, “on the day when he is purified”. He must adapt his tone and method in order to be in sync with the nature of the occasion. More importantly, the Kohain must communicate to the metzora, the “law of tzaraas” - i.e. he must inform him of the nature of the affliction and the message that it imparts, both at its onset and at its departure.

It is always challenging to figure out the right words to say at the right time. The golden rule is that if one is not sure if what he is saying is appropriate it is always safer and wiser to remain silent.

We constantly underestimate the value of human companionship and “just being there”. We feel that in order to be effective we must say something. But - as any person who has suffered through tragedy can attest - sometimes there are no words; sharing the pain in contemplative silence is the greatest solace one can offer.

The woman in Rabbi Krohn’s story unquestionably meant to cheer up her friend. But she failed to think about the blatant idiocy of her words.

She is comparable to one who goes to comfort a woman mourning the untimely and tragic death of her husband and mentions to the mourner that she knows a man who may make a great husband for her[8]. The visitor may have the best intentions in mind but such a comment is extremely inappropriate and insensitive.

The most outlandish and prosperous comments are generally uttered with the best intentions. In the desire to comfort and placate one who is suffering people often impulsively say things they think will be reassuring and supportive, without realizing the negative and hurtful effect their words have.

A comment we say in passing and immediately forget about may cause the recipient reeling from emotional pain, their external smile not withstanding.[9]

A number of years ago I co-hosted a series of workshops with Dr. Yitzchok Schechter, the director of the Center for Applied Psychology[10], in Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch. The workshops were dedicated to helping parents, teachers, and students understand emotions. We discussed how emotions affect our lives and the lives of our children and how we can help our children understand their feelings in order to work with them, not against them.

Dr. Schechter repeatedly noted that at times we have to allow a child to simply ‘experience’ his/her emotions. Very often we press an upset child to tell us what is bothering him/her. Then, when the child relents and shares their sorrow or concerns we immediately unwittingly play down the child’s fears, sadness, or anxieties. We tell the child “it’s not a big deal”, “we’ll get you another one”, “you have other friends”, etc. Although our intent is to protect our children from anguish, the message we send them is one of indifference to their feelings and invalidation for their pain.

Just as we need validation, empathy, and understanding, and sometimes do not want advice, so do our children need the same. Sadness and fear are inevitable parts of life and sometimes we can be invaluably helpful just by listening and seeking to understand. There is hardly anything more powerful and meaningful than listening to another and making them feel validated.

Knowing what to say is important; knowing what not to say is even more important!

Knowing what to say is important; knowing how and when to say it is crucial!

On a personal level, there was no one I knew who had the ability to deal with people in a manner that made them feel elevated and special, more than my Sabbah (Grandfather) a’h.

This Friday, 4 Nissan is the yahrtzeit of my Sabbah, my father’s father, Mr. Abe Staum - Avrohom Yosef ben Naftali Hertz a’h. My Sabbah was a regal man; a ‘mentch’ in the true sense of the word. He was an affable, easygoing person with a contagious smile and warm demeanor. People adored him because he loved others and knew how to convey those feelings.

In our fast-paced technologically advanced society, it is rare to find someone who possesses an ever-present ‘twinkle in his eye’, a sense of humor, and patience for others. My Sabbah was such an individual.

I remember my Sabbah as the passionate Chazzan for Shacharis on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the Poilisher Shteble on the Lower East Side. But even more fondly, I remember him as an avuncular grandfather who took great pride in watching the growth and accomplishments of his grandchildren.

I often say that if I am half the man that he was that would be a great accomplishment.

Our son Avi is the second member of our family who proudly carries the name of his illustrious great-grandfather – Avrohom Yosef Staum. May he live up to his name.

May Sabbah’s memory be for a blessing!

“To rule on which day”

“He loved his fellow men and brought them close to Torah”

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[1] one afflicted with tzaraas

[2] 14:54-57 “זאת התורה לכל נגע הצרעת...להורות ביום הטמא וביום הטהר זאת תורת הצרעת -

[3] i.e. to render halachic decisions

[4] In Toras Kohanim

[5] Toras Kohanim

[6] Iyov 42:7

[7] Avos 1:12

[8] This has happened!

[9] Some of the egregious comments I have heard others say include:

-To a young woman or man that just broke off an engagement, “Well, it’s better now than later!” [A simple, “I’m sorry to hear what happened” may suffice, if it’s necessary to say anything at all. The person is well aware that it’s better now than later, but that does little to diminish the immediate pain he/she is suffering from.]

-To one who has sustained some sort of financial loss, “It should be a kapparah (forgiveness)”. [Although that maybe a proper perspective to have one should say it to himself. No one wants to hear it from someone else. At a time of loss we need support not moral harangues. ]

-I have been told by “older singles” that they could writes volumes of the outlandishly dumb and painful comments that people have said to them.

[10] the mental health division of Bikur Cholim of Monsey

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