In the parashot of Tazria-Metzora we learn about the disease of tzara’at (Biblical leprosy) and how the individual suffering from it is purified. Although nowadays we have no way to actively observe the laws of tzara’at, nonetheless, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us that every word of Torah has a practical application for every individual, at every location and at all times.
This being the case, let’s meditate on one interesting point. The Torah enumerates various types of tzara’at, “When an individual has a blister, or a rash or a bright spot,” the primary sign of impurity being that the skin lesion is white (as Rashi explains that each of these three types of tzara’at is whiter than the preceding type). The sages explain that there are in fact four types of “lesion appearances”: a “blister” (שְׂאֵת), or a “bright spot” (בַּהֶרֶת), an “inflamed blister” (סַפַּחַת הַשְׂאֵת)” or an “inflamed bright spot” (סַפַּחַת הַבַּהֶרֶת). The difference between these four types is in the specific shade of the lesion: the “bright spot” is “strong as snow,” the “blister” is “like white wool,” “an inflamed bright spot” is “like the chalk of the Hall” and an “inflamed blister” is like an “egg’s membrane.” These four shades from dazzling white to matt white are reminiscent of a modern paint catalog in which one can find an amazing wealth of shades in white alone.
Skilled in theory
But what is the significance of the differences between these four types of lesion in Jewish law? Rambam (Maimonides) writes, “These four lesions all participate with one another, either to be lenient or to be strict… How? A lesion that is totally as white as snow or like the chalk of the Hall or like clean wool or like an egg’s membrane is the same as a lesion that is white somewhat like the look of a bright spot and somewhat like the look of a blister and somewhat like an inflammation – all of them are considered the same.” This means that in actual fact, there is no difference between the four types; the appearance of the lesion can be in any one of these shades or a mixture of any of them in order to conclude that the lesion is impure.
In that case, why should we need to distinguish between the different shades? Rambam continues, “If so, why did the sages enumerate them? … in order to understand the appearance: any kohen (priest) who does not know the appearances and their names, when they teach him and inform him – he will not see the lesion until he understands and knows and can say, this is a bright spot and this is its inflammation, this is a blister and this is its inflammation.” Meaning, that even though there is no practical application to the distinction between the four types of lesion, nonetheless, the kohen must know how to distinguish between them! This is a very unusual law, perhaps we can even say that it is somewhat bizarre: in order to diagnose tzara’at in practice and to proclaim whether a lesion is pure or impure, the kohen must be skilled in definitions that have no practical application!
Pure Torah wisdom
At first glance, all this seems to be enigmatic, especially in the eyes of realists who have a practical approach to life. A car mechanic or a computer technician could justifiably protest: If the color of the parts that I use makes no difference and I could achieve the same results even if I was color-blind, then why do I need specialized training in information that is of no practical use whatsoever?
The reason is that the Torah’s wisdom cannot be measured only by its practical applications. The Torah has essential value that is independent of its expediency. One might ask the thousands of yeshivah students who study Torah every day or the many men who study the daf-yomi (the daily page of Talmud) whether all that they learn has direct practical applicability, but the reply will be: absolutely not! The Talmud contains myriads of topics, pages and pages of long and detailed discussions about hypothetical situations that have no reasonable chance of ever becoming a practical query. Jewish sages throughout the ages have racked their brains over these topics in all seriousness to the extent that there are even practical conclusions that state what the law would be in such a case, even though it is quite clear that this law will never be applied in practice! In effect, it would seem that the Yiddisher kopf (“Jewish mind”) takes great pleasure in dealing with abstract ideas that are far-removed from the world of action… But, what do we need them for?
The inner dimension of the Torah explains that when we study Torah we are constantly occupied with actual reality. Just as our physical world seems to be tangible and real, so there are other spiritual worlds that are no less real (similar to the “many worlds” theory of modern science). The truth is that those laws that have no expression in the physical world that our eyes perceive do actually describe a reality that is tangible in the higher worlds (which the inner dimension of the Torah deals with in detail).
The true perspective on the Torah is from above: the Torah is primarily pure wisdom that deals with a higher realm of truth, literally God’s own wisdom, after which this truth receives a practical garb in our world. Even a topic that deals with very material subjects, such as “a bull that gored a cow,” has its source in a much higher world in which a bull and a cow are symbolic of certain spiritual qualities, which “descend” until they reach tangible expression in our world as a real-live bull and cow.
Obviously, this does not mean that we should underrate the importance of our physical actions in this world. The Torah cannot remain in the abstract world alone while we neglect the physical world: “Studying Talmud is great, for it motivates action,” and “the main thing is action” (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe would often stress). But, it is also important to recognize the essential significance of the Torah and of Torah study even when it remains within the walls of the study hall.
Theory is important in practice
Quite probably, almost every Jew who studies Torah can appreciate the importance of studying Torah even when it has no practical application. But, the abovementioned law pertaining to tzara’at reveals a much deeper level: the great secret of the Torah is that in order to reach a practical halachic conclusion one must be familiar with those abstract definitions that have no practical application!
This means that even the most abstract Torah topic actually becomes practical Jewish law, because, if you want to come to a practical conclusion, you must also specialize in abstract definitions! One might say that we need two degrees in Torah: a first degree in theory and a second degree in practical applications. If in theory there is significance to the distinction between dazzling white and matt white, you must acquire this knowledge and know how to correctly name the lesion and only then deal with the external details that pertain directly to the halachic decision (such as the size of the lesion, etc.) Although we are unaware of what exactly about the diagnosis of the lesion’s color and its name is pertinent, nonetheless, we know that following Rambam’s ruling, in principle there is decisive significance to the essential definition, so much so that someone who does not understand it cannot assert whether it is “pure” or “impure.” In fact, at some profound level even those fundamental definitions that appear to be detached from reality do actually have some influence on the practical diagnosis.
Between father and mother
In Kabbalistic terminology, the Holy Arizal said that tzara’at is a result of “the withdrawal of the light of the father principle.” “The father principle” is the light of the sefirah of wisdom, which is referred to as “father,” as opposed to the sefirah of understanding, which is called, “mother.” Wisdom is the point of pure intellect and understanding takes hold of this initial point and develops it into a more tangible realm. The soul root of individuals who tend towards purely intellectual study stems from the sefirah of wisdom, while the soul root of individuals with a more realistic attitude stems more from understanding.
These concepts of “father” and “mother” are related to our regular familial association of the two terms: the father figure defines the essence and the principles of the entire family. He represents the tendency towards wisdom, the occupation with wisdom for wisdom’s sake. The mother figure represents practical wisdom, the “additional understanding” that is given to women and the talent to understand how reality functions in practice.
Since tzara’at is a result of a withdrawal of wisdom, it indicates an exaggerated tendency toward the practical side of the Torah and negligence of the pure and theoretical side of Torah wisdom. From here we can understand why the special law that demands that the kohen be well-versed even in the entirely theoretical side of the Torah is so pertinent here – because tzara’at itself stems from the withdrawal of wisdom. Therefore, in order to identify it and heal it, one must be particularly aware of the intricacies of wisdom!
More profoundly, theoretical wisdom can already be identified in the crown, the super-conscious power of the soul (which motivates the conscious). In Kabbalistic language, the sefirah of crown has two “persona”: the “Elder of Days” (עַתִיק יוֹמִין) and “the Long Countenance” (אֲרִיךְ אַנְפִּין). Chassidut explains that the inner essence of “the Elder of Days” is the power of spiritual pleasure in the soul, which motivates us to love life (super-consciously – in direct contrast to the sensualistic “pleasure principle” of modern psychology). The inner essence of “the Long Countenance” is the power of will in the soul. Will is more practically oriented and therefore manifests as the practical wisdom of the sefirahof understanding, while pleasure is “simple pleasure” that manifests as the pure intellect of the sefirahof wisdom. Indeed, rectifying tzara’at or a “plague” (נֶגַע) is actually by turning it into “pleasure” (עֹנֶג), which is a permutation of the same letters. Now it is clear why the lesion must be assessed through the eyes of pure intellect, because theoretical knowledge arouses the power of pure pleasure in the soul. This is the duty of the kohen, the “man of loving-kindness,” whose task is to instill love and pleasure among people.
Individual and communal healing
The way tzara’at is healed teaches us how to heal the soul. Knowing how to truly heal emotional illness involves more than is apparent on the direct practical plane. The higher the levels of the soul that one is able to access, including innermost dimensions that may appear to be detached from the actual physical symptoms, the lower one can descend into the simple practical world to cure the individual’s pain.
From the individual we reach society as a whole: it is our desire to find a cure that will rectify the current situation of the Jewish people and of the world in its entirety, beginning with rectifying Jewish society and Jewish politics here in the Holy Land. To achieve this, it does not suffice to look at the mundane dimension alone; we need to know how to analyze the roots of reality, to expose the various diseases and name them correctly, down to the minutest details of the various shades of white. Once we have achieved this it will be possible to attain true rectification, with God’s help, then as Chassidut teaches, we can transform plague (נֶגַע) into pleasure (עֹנֶג).
From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 27th Adar 5768