Parshas Metzora deals with the purification process of the person afflicted with tzora’as. After the disease healed, the formerly afflicted person is instructed to bring a sacrifice that includes two very diametrical items. “And he shall take two birds, cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop (Leviticus 14:4).” The Torah details the offering and all of its intricacies, leaving the commentaries to ponder the symbolism of the wood of the tallest of trees bound together with the lowly moss of the hyssop.
Rashi explains that, “the hyssop symbolizes the humility that the metzora should have,” and the cedar,” he explains, “is a symbolic reminder that he who holds himself as high as the cedar tree should learn to lower himself like the hyssop.”
However, wouldn’t hyssop alone teach us this characteristic or at least symbolize humility? What point is there in bringing cedar? And, in fact, if bringing moss represents the need for humility couldn’t the offering of cedar represent the need for pride? Perhaps there is another explanation for the two attributes to be joined.
A few years after Rabbi Shneur Kotler succeeded his late father Reb Ahron as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Lakewood Yeshiva, the Yeshiva’s enrollment began to expand. No longer was Reb Shneur able to sit and study in the large Yeshiva all day. He was suddenly forced to raise funds day in and day out often leaving early in the morning and returning home way past midnight.
A brief respite was the annual convention of Agudath Israel at which nearly 1000 laymen and rabbinical leaders would gather for a long weekend to discuss the state of Torah affairs.
My grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, the oldest member of the Council of Torah Sages would often highlight the keynote session on Saturday night. As the eldest of the world’s Torah sages, Reb Yaakov would find a way to sneak up to the dais, usually through a back door, to avoid having the entire crowd arise upon seeing his presence as is required by Jewish Law. Yet this year things were different. Reb Yaakov engaged the much younger, Reb Shneur in conversation outside the large ballroom and waited until everyone took his or her seats. Then he took Reb Shneur by the hand and said, “I think it is time we took our seats.” He proudly held Reb Shneur by the arm and escorted him to the dais as the throng of people rose in awe.
Reb Shneur, stunned by Reb Yaakov’s departure from his trademark humility asked him why he did not go through the back as was his usual custom.
“Reb Shneur,” he explained, “your Rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) is sitting in the auditorium . The entire year she sees you in a much-dishonored light. You run from donor to donor in order to keep the Yeshiva open, you have hardly any time to prepare your lectures, and all she sees are people knocking on your door with their problems. Yet she stands beside you faithful and unwavering. It is time that she sees that you get a little kavod (honor).
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (1799-1866) explains that sometimes people become so humbled to the point of forgetting that they can actually achieve wonderful accomplishments. Often, humility breeds self-effacement that may lead to despair. Of course Rashi is correct in explaining that those who are haughty as the cedar must humble themselves as mass, but one must also bear in mind an equally important fact – that at times after one has been humiliated as low as the hyssop he must rise in his own eyes to the height of a cedar and proudly exclaim that he can and will accomplish the lofty and far reaching goal to which he or she aspires. And those are goals that only the cedar’s limbs can touch.
So, perhaps the lowly hyssop must be bound with a seemingly mismatched and more supercilious counterpart, the cedar. Because when they are offered hand-in-hand, they may have a lot to learn from each other.
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Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.