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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Turning the Avodah Tables 1

As if it were not difficult enough to come to grips with the richness of the detail of the taharah of the metzora, the parshah presents another challenge, easy to overlook. Phrases are repeated, doubled, without apparent cause. Indeed, we find three such repetitions’ in the space of two psukim: ish tzarua hu tameh hu;2 tameh yetameno hakohen;3 tameh tameh yikra.4

Sefer Yetzirah5 establishes an identity between the poles of spiritual success and failure. “There is nothing in the realm of good above oneg – the joy of finding pleasure purely in one’s connection to Hashem, which represents the pinnacle of avodah – and there is nothing in the realm of evil below nega6 – the presence of a deficiency in avodah so weighty, that it is miraculously marked by G-d Himself. This identity is instructive. Any achievement in avodas Hashem necessarily includes two components – sur meira, or repudiating evil, and aseh tov, performing good deeds. Sefer Yetzirah suggests that abject failure in avodah implies deficiency in both of these areas as well.

The doublings are thus accounted for. They emphasize that the metzora is a double failure. He has fallen to some sin or other, among the list of sins that Chazal link to negaim. But this does not suffice to make him a metzora. He cannot hit bottom without a parallel dropping off in his performance of mitzvos, the activities that usually draw a person closer to Hashem. He must have drifted away – something alluded to in the requirement that he is banished from proximity to the rest of the camp, and must dwell alone as an outsider.

We are no longer surprised that duality is built into his taharah, the tikkun and antidote to his failure. The two birds in his offering are treated very differently. We slaughter one of them over spring water, and sprinkle its blood seven times, elevating it in kedushah. The fate of the second bird is entirely dissimilar. We do not elevate it through some avodah activity in the Beis Hamikdosh. To the contrary, we push it away, we banish it from the human sphere by setting it free to the open fields.

The Seforim HaKedoshim draw a parallel to the two goats on Yom Kippur. There as well, the road before them forks towards entirely different destinations. The blood of one goat finds its way into the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies. The other goat is driven out of the camp, suffering an inelegant demise on the crags of the wilderness. The latter animal symbolically bears the sins of the Nation, and carries them off into the distance, while its companion speaks the language of asei tov, of binding the people to their Heavenly Patron. (The sin- laden animals are treated somewhat differently. In the avodah of Yom Kippur, the Azazel-goat bears so much iniquity that it would contaminate and infect anything it met up with. There is no choice but to utterly remove it from any possible contact with civilization. Its analog among the metzora-birds addresses personal sin, not national failure; it suffices to send it free, away from habitation, without going to the same ends to destroy it.

The avodah of the birds transforms nega into oneg – paving the way to experience once more the joy of connection to Hashem. Not unexpectedly, a Mishnah7 specifies that the birds match one another in appearance, stature and value – exactly duplicating the instructions for the selection of the two goats on Yom Kippur.

One detail disturbs our assumption about the inner meaning of the two birds. We are always taught that sur meira must precede aseh tov. We don’t aim for positive achievement without first rectifying our negatives. Why, then, does the Torah instruct us in the avodah of the slaughtered bird – the one that symbolizes spiritual growth through mitzvah activity – before detailing how we are to send forth its companion? (This difficulty, at least, shows consistency. We can raise the very same question in regard to the goats of Yom Kippur. There, too, the Torah deals with the goat that is offered as a korban – the one that brings us closer to Hashem – before it describes how to send away the Azazel goat, and banish the evil associated with it.)

We can find an answer to this puzzle by examining two competing explanations of the sur meira va’aseh tov verse.8 The customary explanation has it that before we reach for the higher levels of spiritual accomplishment driven by good deeds, we must first purge ourselves of our faults and imperfections. Of what good is it to reach for stellar heights of refinement when we are still mired in the mud of our shortcomings? The verse, however, can be read in a completely different fashion. The second phrase may not follow from and after the first, but may be the explanation for it. In other words, the pasuk tells us that we can turn our backs on the evil within us by throwing ourselves into the performance of good acts! These acts neutralize and detoxify our unsavory spiritual baggage.

These explanations not only read the verse differently, they map out very different spiritual trajectories for us. Which of the two are we to follow? In fact, though, the two approaches need not contradict each other. Each applies to a different group. Those whose teshuvah is driven by yirah, by fear and reverence of Hashem, must take the well traveled route. They must first evidence that yirah by closing up the gaps and inconsistencies in their behavior before climbing higher. Those whose teshuvah is ignited by love of Hashem, however, can safely concentrate on that ahavah without looking back. Their previous sins are turned into merits; their shortcomings are disregarded by Hashem, who reciprocates their love with His. “Love covers over all trespass.”9 Their sins fall away in passing.

The Torah goes for broke in both sections dealing with teshuvah, and describes follows the order that is suitable in the case of teshuvah me-ahavah. Regarding both the goats of Yom Kippur and the birds of the metzora, the Torah follows the protocol of the love- driven penitent, whose rejection of evil is an afterthought, not the primary focus of his energies.

Shabbos is swathed in ahavah. It is the theme of the day. (Ramban10 observes that the korbanos of Shabbos do not include the usual chatas that marks all musaf offerings. Knesses Yisrael is the bride of Shabbos. Between them there is only love and peace, and no room for consideration of sin.) Our eager, loving participation in the activities of Shabbos cover over and hide our past misdeeds. There is no need for a chatas.

It thus makes perfect sense that, of the two verbs simultaneously uttered by Hashem in giving us Shabbos at Sinai, the first one reported in the text is zachor, followed only later by shamor. The commandment to celebrate Shabbos through mitzvah-involvement pushes itself to the front, leaving the guarding against the negative in the runner-up position. Here, too, love conquers all.

1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 68-70
2 Vayikra 13:44
3 Ibid.
4 Vayikra 13:45
5 Chap. 2
6 The words oneg and nega are anagrams.
7 Negaim 14:5
8 Tehillim 34:15
9 Mishlei 10:12
10 Bamidbar 28:2

Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and