Torah for the Times  

Friday, April 12 - Iyar 2, 5773 

Torah Reading: Tazriah-Metzorah (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33)
Candle Lighting Time: 7:14 PM

Shabbat ends: 8:16 PM   

Choose Life

Two Schools of Thought

There are two approaches to dealing with evil, both on the micro and macro level. The first approach focuses mostly on the evil and its destructive power. The second approach seeks to accentuate the positive and allow the light to dispel the darkness.

The contrast between these approaches illustrates one of the salient differences between the ethical teachings of Judaism known as Mussar and the more mystical dimension of Judaism, particularly the teachings of Chassidus.

Both approaches are rooted in the early teachings of our Sages and even in Biblical literature. As we shall see, these two approaches, and the Torah’s preference for the positive approach, are hinted at in this week’s parsha of Tazria-Metzora.

Before we address the hint in this week’s parsha, we will first cite the explicit references to it in Biblical and Talmudic literature.

King David states in Psalm 33:

“Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”

In this Psalm it is not clear which of the two approaches is superior.  Is it the turning away from evil, which is mentioned first? Or perhaps it is the doing of good, which follows the instruction to turn from evil in this verse, because it represents a higher level of spirituality?

Similarly, the Talmud (Berachos 5a) describes these two approaches to dealing with one’s own inner evil impulses:

“Rabbi Levi bar Chama said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: A person should constantly provoke his Good Inclination [to wage war-Rashi] against his Evil Inclination, as it is stated, ‘Tremble [i.e., be provoked] and sin not.’ (Psalms 4:5).

If he vanquishes it, fine. But if not, he should engage in Torah study, as it is stated [in the continuation of the verse], ‘say in your hearts.’

If he vanquishes it fine. But if not, he should recite the Shema, as it is stated [there], ‘on your beds.’ (This refers to the bedtime Shema, recited before retiring.)

If he vanquishes it, fine. But if not, he should remind himself of the day of death, as it is stated [there] ‘and be utterly silent forever.’”

The Talmud outlines both approaches and seems to alternate between them in this passage. First, it advocates provoking the Good Inclination into a fight with the Evil Inclination.  As a last resort, it recommends invoking the memory of death as a way of jolting the person into shunning evil. Between these two “negative” approaches, the Talmud suggests the study of Torah and reciting of the Shema, which are positive approaches, as a means of dealing with one’s evil.

Again, it is not clear from this Talmudic citation which approach is the preferred and superior approach.

Throughout Jewish history, there were proponents of both approaches. However, with the advent of the Ba’al Shem Tov and subsequent leaders of the Chassidic movement, the positive approach was given a major boost. Indeed, this positive approach has, in recent times, been embraced by many other communities as well.

One can ask why our approach to dealing with evil seems to have changed in the last few centuries?

For the Children

A Chassidic commentary, Ner Avraham, discovers a hint of the Chassidic perspective in the words of the Torah in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19):

“I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life! Then you and your children will live.”

Commentators find the phraseology of this verse baffling. First, does G‑d give us death and curses?

Second, why was it even necessary to mention that the alternative to life and blessing is death and curse? The Torah could have written, “life and its opposite, blessing and its opposite.”

Third, why would the Torah have to tell us to choose life? Isn’t that self-evident?

According to Ner Avraham, the answer is that the Torah is actually prescribing two approaches to dealing with evil. One is to embrace the life-empowering study of Torah. The other approach is to focus on the reprehensible nature of evil and its deadly power.

Although, these are both legitimate approaches to the problem of evil, the Torah encourages us to “choose life.” In so doing, the Torah means that one is to vanquish evil by immersing oneself in the life sustaining teachings of Torah, rather than employing the element of fear and threat of death.

When a person combats evil with the Torah of Life and Light, it makes the process of dealing with negativity positive and upbeat. This apporach kills the two proverbial birds with one stone: it gets rid of the evil and it enhances our lives.

Moreover, our children thrive as well when they see our upbeat and positive demeanor.   We model for them that living a Jewish life is a wholly positive and even exhilarating experience. By contrast, when a child sees an angry parent – one who is constantly fighting battles, albeit for the good—he or she can be “turned-off” to Judaism. Negative energy rarely attracts adherents. 

It is to this end that the verse which exhorts us to choose life concludes: “Then you and your children will live.”  When we adopt the transformative positive approach to evil it gives life to ourselves and instills it in our children as well.

Finding and Eradicating Evil

Ner Avraham finds an additional hint to the Torah’s preference for fighting evil with life in the opening verse of parshas Metzora, which discusses the manner by which a Metzora, a person afflicted with a rare skin disease, is to be purified:

“G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: This will be the Torah [law] of the Metzora, on the day of his ritual purification, and he should be brought to the Kohain-priest.”

Or HaChaim questions the necessity of this introductory verse. The Torah could have begun discussing the purification rites of a Metzora by simply stating: “A Metzora is purified by coming to the Kohain etc.” Why the need to emphasize that “This is the Torah of the Metzora”?

The answer lies in the deeper meaning of the world Metzora. It is said to be a contraction of two words: Motzi ra, usually translated as “one who finds or brings out evil.” The conventional understanding is that the Metzora’s affliction is caused by his penchant to find evil in others. One may, however, suggest an alternate translation: “one who wishes to remove and eradicate the evil” from oneself.

Let us cite the verse once more and interpret it in light of the foregoing novel translation of the word Metzora:

“This will be the Torah [law] for theone who wishes to eradicate evil (Metzora,) on the day of his ritual purification, and he should be brought to the Kohain-priest.”

Now we can see that the Torah alludes here to the person who wishes to rid himself of the negativity that caused him to see the negative in others. This he can do by employing the positive approach, namely through the study of Torah.

Immediate Results

There is another significant difference between these two approaches: If the negative approach works, than that is good and fine. But, but if it doesn’t work, it can actually cause one to become depressed, leading to even more negativity in that person’s life. Depression leaves one vulnerable to all sorts of transgressions inasmuch as it suppresses the person’s spiritual immune system. By contrast, even if one’s study of Torah does not succeed in eradicating one’s negativity, Torah study itself is an intrinsically positive and worthwhile experience. It is not just a means to an end, it is also an end in and of itself.

This explains the concluding words of the parsha’s verse: “on the day of his purification.” One of the benefits of following the positive approach to overcome evil is that some of its beneficial effects are immediate.  Thus, states the Torah, the purification is effected on that very day.

Moshiach - the Ultimate Positive Approach

The Talmud informs us that Moshiach is also referred to as a Metzora!

On the surface this designation for the most spiritual of individuals is puzzling. One possible explanation, in light of the above, is that Moshiach is the ultimate eradicator of evil and negativity, he is the true “Motzi Ra.”

How does Moshiach accomplish the goal of ridding the world of war and hatred, among other vices and forms of negativity? His primary force is the study and teaching of Torah. Moshiach, in addition to being the ultimate leader, is also the consummate teacher of Torah.  According to the Kabbalah, Moshiach’s uniqueness as a Torah teacher is that he will impart the most esoteric aspects of Torah to all.

What distinguishes the esoteric parts of the Torah from all the other teachings of Torah?

The Kabbalists explain that the revealed parts of Torah deal with the realities of our world. Thus, this part of Torah is called the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” It is the Divine blueprint for changing a world that is a mixture of good and evil. The teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus—and especially the teachings that will be revealed by Moshiach—by contrast, are referred to as “the Tree of Life.” It is Torah in its most pure, pristine and positive state.

The Torah thus informs us that Moshiach, the Metzora, will bring about the “day of purification”, i.e., the Messianic Age, primarily, by teaching Torah.

We can now understand the emphasis of the Chassidic movement on the positive approach and the reason why it has been adopted by so many in recent times. One cited explanation is that we have been so crushed by the harshest exile conditions that following the negative approach would break us and set us back even more. We cannot afford to become depressed.

However, in light of the above, we can see that there is a much deeper explanation for the Chassidic emphasis on the positive approach, and its virtual universal acceptance. As we get closer to the Messianic Age, we must prepare for the time when the exclusive approach will be the positive one—through the study of the most positive manifestation of the Divine knowledge.

 Moshiach Matters 

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe declared, "All that remains is to 'polish the buttons' of our uniforms so that we will be ready to go out and greet our Righteous Moshiach."

On this, the Rebbe, commented: "At any time clothes are merely an external supplement; how much more so here, where we are speaking of a garment that is needed not for protection against the cold but only to glorify the appearance of official garb. Moreover, we are speaking only of a superficial detail — buttons, which merely add tidiness to the appearance. And even these finishing touches, the "buttons," are also in place already. All that remains is to polish them, to give them the beauty of an added mitzva."

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