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Metzora 5774

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

This entire Sidra deals with a person who has, unfortunately, been afflicted with the serious disease of Tzara'at. In the second opening verse, the Torah says that the patient must be brought to the priest for examination.  In the following verse, it says that the priest went outside the camp to examine the symptoms of the disease and to see if the patient had recovered.

Some commentators have detected an apparent contradiction between verses 2 and 3. On the one hand, verse 2 says that the leper was brought to the priest. On the other hand, verse 3 says the opposite. It informs us that the priest went outside the camp to examine the leper.   Various suggestions have been made to harmonise the two verses. The first explanation which comes to mind is that these two verses refer to different times. The Torah is concerned with the sequence of events. When the patient sees the first symptoms of the disease, he is brought to the priest. Sometime later, when the leper seems to have recovered, the priest goes out to him in order to determine whether he has really recovered.

A second explanation is that the priest was already outside the camp when the leper was brought to him. A third explanation is that it was not the patient who was brought to the priest, but rather it was the information regarding the progress of the disease. 

Some commentators have opted for an ethical interpretation of this apparent contradiction.  There is a moral lesson to be learnt.   The question is who goes out to whom?   Sometimes, it could be a cause of a dispute.   The priest wants the leper to come to him, but the leper insists that the priest should make the first move, and come to him.  The leper might argue that it is the priest’s duty to carry out the examination. It could also be argued that, since the leper is feeling unwell, going out to him would be a gesture of goodwill on the part of the priest. Nevertheless, the Torah commands that the leper should be brought to the priest and not the other way round.

Under normal circumstances, it is usually a Mitzvah to go out of one's way to visit the sick and to see what they need. Even a phone call may not necessarily be sufficient. We might, therefore, have expected that the priest should go to the poor patient.   We find that when Jacob was concerned about his 10 sons, who had gone out and had not returned as expected, he asked Joseph to go and see what had happened to them.  Joseph did not hesitate to obey his father's instruction.   He was willing to go immediately.  This was despite the risk that he was taking, for he must have known of his brothers' strained attitude towards him. He went and met with disaster.  On another occasion, our rabbis tell us of the famous dispute that took place in the days of the Judges. There was an argument between the Judge Yiftach, known in English by the name Jephtha, and the High Priest Pinchas.   Before he went out to battle, Yiftach had made a vow that he would offer up as sacrifice the first living thing that would come out to meet him upon his safe and victorious return.  Of course, Yiftach expected one of his sheep to come out.  The intention he had when making the vow was to offer up a sacrifice of gratitude.  But, tragically, it was his daughter who came out of his tent first and Yiftach felt convinced that he was obliged to offer up his daughter.   Our rabbis maintain that, the high priest, Pinchas could have cancelled this vow. However the difficulty was that both men were extremely proud and obstinate and refused to go out to one another.   As a result, the vow was not cancelled, and Yiftach's daughter was sacrificed.  This is an extreme example of two eminent people, refusing to do the right thing.  

In the case of the leper or any other illness, God forbid, we learn from this apparent contradiction, that a patient has to do everything in his power to find a cure. He should take the initiative.  Everyone has a mitzvah to save himself and protect his health. However, the doctor also has an obligation to go to the patient, especially if the patient is feeling unwell.  If the patient refuses to go to the doctor for no apparent reason, the doctor should still give way.  If the doctor shows goodwill, and behaves correctly, the Torah promises that he will eventually see the patient get better.

The same principle applies when we are stricken with a spiritual malaise.  The sinner should seek advice and go to his rabbi, in order to be guided back on to the right path. However, if the sinner refuses to go or if he doesn't even realise that he is sinning, the rabbi should make an effort to seek out the sinner.  He must go out of his own surroundings and try to do his best to bring back to the fold those who have gone astray.  This is a great mitzvah. Our generation has been privileged to see, thousands of rabbis in our midst who are engaged in this kind of work.  Great organizations have been created.   The most famous amongst them is the Lubavitch Movement, also known as Chabad. Even during the worst days of the evil Empire of the Soviet Union, young rabbis risked their lives to go out to far-flung corners of that empire in order to revive the religious life of those who had been trapped.   Nowadays, the Chabad movement continues this policy by providing hospitality for Jewish wayfarers in virtually every town or city in the world. Our rabbis say that just as it is a great mitzvah to return lost articles to their rightful owners, equally it is one of the greatest Mitzvoth to restore to each person, his soul, which is  his spiritual heritage, together with the Torah and the Mitzvot that have been lost to him.

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