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UNCOVERING THE TREASURES WITH SENSITIVITY
Removing the Earthenware Vessels
One of the most enigmatic laws found in the Torah is “Tzara’as Habyais-house affliction.” Similar to a skin lesion on a human body, discoloration of the house was a sign of ritual impurity and required examination by a Kohain-priest.
If the discoloration was “depressed, deep greens or deep reds and their appearance is lower than the wall” the Kohain would close the house off for seven days. If after seven days the affliction had spread the Kohain would have the affected stones removed, the area scraped and the impure stones replaced with new stones and mortar. If, the affliction continued to spread, the house would be declared entirely tamei-ritually unclean and demolished.
Now, before conducting the initial inspection of the house, the Torah requires the Kohain to order the removal of the house’s contents to prevent them from becoming impure.
Rashi asks, what property was the Torah concerned about? Most utensils can be immersed in a Mikveh to become purified. Any contaminated food can be eaten when the person is in a ritually impure state. “What does the Torah want to save by removal from the house,” Rashi asks, rhetorically? The answer is earthenware vessels which cannot be purified in a Mikveh; if affected they must be destroyed.
There is a powerful lesson we can derive from this law. Here we see the Torah’s concern for the loss of earthenware utensils. How much more so we should show concern for the needs of other people? People frequently dismiss the needs of others by saying that those needs are trivial and unimportant. While they may be unimportant to us they may be important to others and we must treat them accordingly.
This lesson is based on an understanding that someone else’s needs – assuming they are not harmful, illegal, or immoral – are ourobligations. Sure, we might want to educate others that their needs are not real, but that’s when we put on our hat of parent, teacher or mentor. We can then try to educate others as to what are true and important needs and what they can dispense with. However, when we relate to another on a person-to-person basis, we must respect and even support the other’s needs.
In the words of the Alter Rebbe: “Someone else’s material needs are our spiritual needs.”
A story is told of one prestigious rabbi known for his ascetic way of living, who hosted a child who wished for some delicacy, which was hard to procure. The rabbi spent many hours searching for this delicacy because it was important for another.
If we are entrusted with an article of almost no value we must still safeguard it as if it were a precious gem. Recognizing the value differences of things is useful when we own the objects. We have every right to prioritize our own resources and possessions. We cannot, however, impose our priorities on others.
This approach is hinted at in the story of Yisro, Moses’ father-in-law, who counseled Moses to delegate judicial authority to others to hear smaller cases and reserve his personal judicial role for the “big” cases. Although, in principle, G‑d agreed with Yisro’s proposal, He did so with one caveat. Instead of delegating the small cases to other judges and keeping the big ones for himself, G‑d said Moses should delegate judicial authority for the easy cases and reserve the difficult ones for himself.
Commentators explain that the importance of a case should not be determined by the amount of money involved. It should make no difference whether the amount at stake is a penny or a million dollars. What determines the uniqueness of a case is its complexity. When dealing with someone else’s money we have to treat every amount equally. Only the owner has the right to decide the importance of his or her resources.
13 Foundations and 613 Stories Tall
We can apply this lesson to the realm of person-to-G‑d obligations.
Judaism is based on 613 commandments and 13 principles of faith. The difference between the 13 principles of faith and the 613 commandments is that the former represent the foundation of Judaism while the latter provides its day-to-day structure. While destroying one of the 613 stories would diminish and harm the structure, it would still remain a building. However, if we were to remove the foundation the entire structure would collapse.
Now, if one were demolish one’s own structure, we would distinguish between one of its stories and its foundation. However, when we are discussing the building owned by another, it makes no difference which part of the building is at risk of destruction. The entire structure—foundation and all of its stories—are equally sacrosanct and off limits. We have as little right to destroy the 613thfloor as we have to destroy the foundation.
This answers the apparent contradiction that exists with respect to the hierarchical importance of Mitzvos. In Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter 2:1) we are taught not to weigh the value of one Mitzvah against another. Yet in many other sources the Torah and our Sages speak of the stringent commandments and the less stringent commandments. Some commandments might appear to us as gems and others as simple earthenware.
When do we have the right to differentiate between Mitzvos by assigning greater importance to one than another? Are there times when we must treat all the Mitzvos as equal?
The answer is that when dealing with our subjective emotions, each Mitzvah can touch our souls in a different way. Some Mitzvos will have a more powerful effect on our minds, hearts and souls than others. Similarly, one Mitzvah will have an impact on the world in ways that other Mitzvos won’t. For example, the Talmud states that wearing Tefillin will command the fear and respect of other nations. It does not say that about other Mitzvos.
However, if we want to tamper with any Mitzvah, even the most “trivial” ones, it is as serious a breach as tampering with the most significant ones. The Mitzvos are G‑d’s domain and any attempt at undermining even the slightest iota of a Mitzvah is tantamount to destroying it in its entirety. A Mitzvah is an expression of G‑d’s will. His will for one Mitzvah is not different from His will for the others. While they differ in terms of their underlying rationale and the spiritual energy they generate, they are fundamentally all the expression of One Divine will; they form one complete and indivisible structure. Tampering with one Mitzvah is no different from tampering with all of them.
Discovering the Treasures
This lesson is even more relevant to us in the present day as we stand on the threshold of the Final Redemption. We can understand the enhanced importance of this lesson today by referring to the reason for this strange phenomenon of afflicted houses.
Our Sages tell us that the reason houses in Israel were demolished when they exhibited signs of “affliction” was actually for the benefit of the Jewish people who conquered the Land of Canaanites. The Canaanites hid their treasures in the walls of their homes to keep them safe in the impending invasion by the Jews. G‑d in his infinite kindness therefore created the phenomenon of afflicted houses so that the Jews would discover these treasures.
The Rebbe explains that this is also a metaphor for the hidden treasures in exile that will be revealed in the Messianic Age. Our mission now is to do everything in our power to demolish the structures of our exile to uncover their hidden treasures.
One might think that since we are involved in history’s most important effort to bring Moshiach and the final Redemption, at which time all of the world’s spiritual treasures will be revealed, that we may cut corners and skip over the smaller details of Jewish law. Similarly, one might think that it may be a less serious infraction to trivialize someone else’s needs or feelings in the pursuit of bringing Moshiach.
To dispel this misguided notion, the Torah tells us that before the Kohain can start the process of demolition of the home and discovery of the treasures, he must first guarantee that even the lowliest and most insignificant earthenware vessels will be removed to protect them from becoming contaminated and lost.
To bring Moshiach we must do it with utmost respect for the property and dignity of others. “Others” include other human beings and their property just as it involves our uncompromising relationship with G‑d.
Moshiach and the Messianic Age are all about our total fidelity to the teachings of the Torah. In exile we are unable to keep most of the 613 commandments because of the loss of the Bais Hamikdash and other conditions of our diaspora. Moshiach’s main objective will be to restore our ability to keep all of the commandments with integrity. Each Mitzvah is an expression of G‑d’s will and observing each nuance of each Mitzvah we attach ourselves to Him and bring Him into our lives and throughout the world.
One cannot conflate Moshiach with compromising our respect for the integrity of G‑d’s commandments and the dignity of other people. Reinforcing our respect and sensitivity to others is the surest way to prepare ourselves for the world of Moshiach and to hasten his coming.
The concept of redemption is intrinsically related to women. Our Sages teach that "In the merit of righteous women, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt." The same applies to later redemptions. And as to the future, we have been promised, "As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders." The holy Ari writes that the generation of the ultimate Redemption will be a reincarnation of the generation of the exodus. Since the future Redemption will therefore follow the pattern of that archetypal redemption, it will also come as a result of the merit of the righteous women of that generation.