Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Making One's 'Bed' - And Lying In It
Examining the multi-faceted purification process of the metzora, it
becomes evident that the Torah is going out of its way to break his
spirit. Some of the things he is forced to go through are downright
degrading. He is quarantined outside of city limits; everyone who passes
by is obligated to insult him; his hair, including all bodily hair, must be
This is not surprising. Atonement for sin requires that the penitent sinner
purge himself of the moral flaw that brought about his misdeeds. The
underlying cause for slander and malicious speech - the sins that are
punished by tzara'as - is arrogance, because it breeds the contempt for
others that leads one to gossip and talk about others with disregard for
their feelings. The metzora's repentance thus involves his resolve to
rectify this flaw, which is both symbolized and stimulated by the actions
taken to demean the metzora and break his arrogance and callousness.
Not only does a metzora become tamei (ritually impure); he also
becomes a conduit to impart his impurity to others, not unlike those
who come into contact with a corpse. Indeed, according to Chazal, our
Sages, a metzora is "considered as if he were dead." When Hashem told
Moshe to return to Egypt to redeem the Jews, he feared for his life; he
was a wanted man for having killed in his youth an Egyptian who was
beating a Jewish slave. His greatest fear was from two Jewish
taskmasters, Dasan and Aviram, Pharaoh's informants. Hashem reassures
Moshe that he has nothing to fear from his two nemeses: "Go, return to
Egypt, for all the people who seek your life have died. (Shemos/Numbers
4:19)" In fact we know that Dasan and Aviram were far from dead.
Indeed, they reappear in parshas Korach to join the rebellion against
Moshe's leadership. So why does Hashem declare them dead? There are
numerous explanations. One of them is that they had contracted
tzara'as - thus they were technically dead (see Nedarim 64b). (One could
imagine that a metzora, who's skin and perhaps hair and beard had
become discoloured, would have a hard time being an informant, due to
his embarrassment.) Indeed, it is fitting that they contract tzara'as, for
they had sinned by informing against their fellow man - who had come
to the defence of an innocent Jew being beaten by his master.
If, as we discussed, the process of the Metzora is designed to break his
arrogance - the root of malicious speech - how does this relate to his
In 5634/1874, the young tzaddik R' Aryeh Mordechai zt"l, grandson of the
holy Yid HaKadosh of Peshischa zt"l, decided to leave his native Poland
and settle in Eretz Yisrael. On his way, R' Aryeh Mordechai passed
through Frankfurt am-Main, where he was invited to be the personal
guest of the famed Baron Rothschild. The baron was famous not only for
his riches, but for his piety as well. Not just in regard to his world-
renowned charity and kindness, but for his fear of G-d and strict
adherence to Torah and mitzvah observance. His boundless love for
Torah and its scholars made him a highly-regarded figure in Jewish life.
Thus, one can well imagine the warm reception given R' Aryeh
Mordechai by the baron. The magnate alone stood ready to tend to his
guest's needs, and made sure the stay at his home would be a most
One evening, after his business affairs were complete, the baron knocked
on the door of his guest and invited him for a stroll in his mansion's
expansive gardens. Along the scented paths, decorated with flowers and
fruit trees, guest and host engaged in conversation that centered around
their mutual love for Torah and mitzvos.
(It is told that the Rav of Pressburg, R' Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer
zt"l, was once invited by the baron to take a similar stroll. On the way,
Baron Rothschild asked the Rav if, perhaps, he had noticed anything in
the house or its conduct that was not fitting for the house of a G-d
fearing Jew. "Yes," he replied smiling, "I did. In our holy Torah, it says
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:15), 'And Israel became fat, and he rebelled.'
Yet here, although you have been blessed with great wealth and
opulence, you have in no way at all rebelled against the Almighty! To the
contrary, you use your resources to enhance and beautify the Torah!")
As he now strolled along with his guest, R' Aryeh Mordechai, they passed
by a small, well-maintained cottage on the outskirts of the garden. "What
is this cottage for?" inquired the guest.
"It is my private office," the baron replied vaguely.
"Yet didn't you already show me a different room in your home which
you said was your office?"
The baron thought for a moment, and then looked around to make sure
no one was there. "Since you ask," he said in a whisper, "I will reveal to
you the secret of my 'other' office, the contents of which even my
closest family members are not aware. Besides me, no one has ever
stepped into this office."
The baron withdrew a key and opened up the cottage's door. Inside, he
lit a lamp, and immediately R' Aryeh Mordechai was frozen in his spot.
The cottage consisted of one, windowless room that was completely
bare, save for the coffin that stood in the centre of its floor. Inside the
coffin were shrouds, and the sefer Ma'avar Yabok (which deals with the
laws of death and bereavement).
Without waiting for the obvious question, the baron explained. "Every
day, in the middle of my numerous business dealings, I quietly take a
break and come to my 'office.' After locking the door behind me, I don
the shrouds and lie inside the coffin. For about half an hour, I read the
final confession, and the prayers one says upon one's death bed.
"This activity is vital to me. It ensures that I never, G-d forbid, become
arrogant and start to believe I am invincible. Every day I must deal with
great wealth flowing through my hands, and "rub shoulders" with
numerous wealthy and famous contacts from all over the world. It would
be all too easy for me to start believing that these are all my
accomplishments; that my name and fame will live on forever. So, you
see, I need this little reminder of the frailty of my existence and my total
dependence on Hashem." Needless to say, at least to one R' Aryeh
Mordechai, the mystery of the wealthy baron's ability to remain steadfast
in his commitment to Torah and mitzvos despite his great wealth and
prominence no longer seemed so difficult to understand.
Perhaps by acting with callousness and arrogance towards his fellow Jew,
the metzora has failed to recognize his own faults and mortality. He has
failed, so to speak, to "lie down in his own coffin." Thus, as a
consequence, the Torah declares him tamei with a level of impurity
similar to one who comes in contact with the dead. If he will not, on his
own, deal with others with humility and modesty, then he will be
humbled by the tzara'as affliction.
"What should a person do if he fears falling prey to his yezter hara?" asks
the Gemara. "Let him remind himself of the day of his own death
(Berachos 5a)." While not all of us have the psychological stability and
mental fortuity to undergo the "Baron Rothschild treatment," a dose of
humility and mortality stands one in good stead when dealing with
Have a good Shabbos.
Dedicated in loving memory of Levi Yitzchak ben Avraham
Leib. Ye'hei zichro baruch.
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.