As we read the double sedra of Tazria-Metzorah this Shabbat, many will notice that while the overall theme of these two sedrot is the spiritual nega of Tzara’at, the narrative slowly but subtly transitions through different types of illness, so that each and every one of us leaves shul with an exhaustive (especially at the earlier minyanim, where the end of tefilah signals that nap time approaches) understanding of this complex concept. However, within the flow of the sedrot, one type of tzara’at is set aside by the pesukim as being exceptionally different, and this, of course, is house tzara’at:
“וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר.כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם.”
When you enter Eretz Canaan, which was given as our eternal estate, Hashem will put a nega tzara’at on our homes. Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra explains that this passuk, which sounds like a promise, is actually more of a threat- the following section, which discusses tzara’at which can appear on an individual’s home under certain circumstances, is a phenomenon which only occurs in Eretz Yisrael. Why? To quote Chizkuni, “Eretz Yisrael, where the Bet Hamikdash will be built in the future, is on such a high level, that must remain clean and pure.” Or, in other words, tzara’at, the quintessential spiritual nega, is Hashem’s way of “letting us know” that we’re sinning, a warning that we’re not treating Eretz Yisrael with enough honor, the Holy Land with sufficient holiness.
Last month, I had the opportunity to witness several organized protests by Haredim of the Yerushalmi faction against the amendment to the IDF Draft Law several months ago, and more recent imprisonment of three of their fellow students. Putting aside my personal bias (as a future IDF enlistee), and the fact that these students were only arrested because they failed to show up to their scheduled appointment to receive a formal exemption from the army, I spoke to several of the protesters to try to understand their perspective. In the guise of an American reporter with little Hebrew and no grasp of the issues, I spoke to many of these Yerushalmi Haredim, listened to what they had to say, and tried to understand why.
What I learned was astonishing. Rav Shmuel Auerbach, leader of this particular sect of Haredi Jews, had imparted on his students a belief that the State of Israel is at active war against Torah Judaism… or, their flavor of Torah Judaism, they were quick to clarify once I pointed out how many successfully religious IDF veterans even I, the unassuming American journalist, know. The IDF is seen by these Jews as a tool of the secular government to force young, impressionable men out of their yeshivot in order to become what they see as a “one size fits all” Israeli Jew, something which Rav Auerbach saw as the death of Torah Judaism in Israel.
In order to express their displeasure, this branch of Judaism doesn’t recognize the State of Israel or the IDF as Jewish entities, and they refuse to appear at their appointments to submit their paperwork to receive a formal exemption from military service. One particular individual was so concerned about this that he proudly told me that even though he is currently learning in Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he plans on returning home to Germany soon, as he believes that the government there, whose earlier gilgul sanctioned and carried out the calculated execution of over six million Jews, cares more about the future of Judaism than the State of Israel does.
As a Jew who proudly believes in Medinat Yisrael’s status as reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu, and sadly acknowledges that many of the six million ended up being slaughtered by the Nazi Germans because they remained in Europe until it was too late, this was particularly difficult to understand and even more difficult to hear. However, let us put this aside for a minute and return to our sedra:
Someone with the religious sensibilities of these Yerushalmim might take a look at this section of Parshat Metzorah and wonder why any of the Jews who had left Egypt would even want to enter Eretz Yisrael. On the one hand, since the beginning of time, G-d Himself had praised the virtues of the Holy Land, and made it clear that our national destiny is to eventually dwell there. On the other hand, it’s clear that with the higher level of spiritual potential comes the higher exposure to sin- the stakes are much, much higher in the Land of Israel. So, why would any “ירא השם” ever want to enter Eretz Yisrael?
To quote Ibn Ezra, “הדבר תלוי בנתינת ה’ ולא במקריות.” Tzara’at, like all parts of life in the Land of Israel, is from Hashem and certainly not happenstance. Life in Eretz Yisrael presents unique challenges, many of them spiritual. But, unlike challenges everywhere else in the world, they are directly from Hashem, and we do a great disservice to ourselves by taking them as “מקרה,” and not seeing them as a message from Hashem. The key to a successful spiritual existence in Israel is to accept the spiritual nega’im, recognize that they are from Hashem, and look inwards to try to figure out why they are happening, what we did to deserve this punishment, and what we can do to rectify it.
This is a perspective which I believe the Yerushalmi chasidim would gain tremendously from adopting. At the counsel of their spiritual leader, an entire sect of Judaism took a look at a nega, the spiritual deterioration of many of their younger followers who were drafted to the IDF, and refused to see it as being from Hashem. Instead of looking inward and asking why, thinking about how they could perhaps improve their education so that their children will survive as observant Jews outside of their comfort zone; how maybe a less combative stance on secular Judaism could better enable a better compromise with the Israeli government and the IDF, and even set a good example for their children of how to properly fulfill “ואהבת לרעך כמוך,” which Rabbi Akiva designated as the most important mitzva in the Torah; how maybe advising their students to take an hour or two out of their learning to accept the olive branch extended by the State of Israel and present their paperwork at the lishkat giyus instead of wasting days of learning Torah to block busy traffic intersections and engender tremendous amounts of sin’at chinam.
If I could think of all of these over the course of the twenty minutes which I spent watching the protesters call the State of Israel a danger to the Jewish People, and watching a proudly German Jew call his brothers in Israeli Police uniforms Nazis, then I wonder how many other ideas a gadol at the level of Rav Shmuel Auerbach could think of if he and his followers put their minds to it. The potential is limitless, if only the will is there.
This past week we commemorated Rosh Chodesh Iyar, a month over the course of which the majority of Jews in Israel and a sizable population abroad will revel in the sixty ninth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and the fiftieth anniversary of reuniting its eternal capital of Jerusalem. Even though we are in the middle of the period of Sefirat Ha’omer, we are very fortunate to have much to celebrate.
The founding of the State of Israel, the reuniting of Jerusalem, and Zionism as a whole, is in some ways very similar to the spiritual nega of tzara’at. One can look at these as the potential for much holiness, for the fulfillment of a mitzva which two thousand years of Jews only dreamed of being able to even contemplate, or as the potential for Jews who are less observant to wreak even more spiritual damage than their assimilated brethren in the exile- these are two sides of the same coin.
I’ve attempted to make my position on this issue very clear over the past four years, but I also very much respect those with less warm and fuzzy feelings about the State of Israel. The key to coexistence as a people in Israel and abroad is mutual respect, and, as Ibn Ezra put it so quaintly, to remember that whether the founding of a Jewish State is the coin landing on ‘heads’ or ‘tails,’ we must remember that the coin was given to us by G-d Himself, that the miraculous events of 1948, 1967 and every other high (or low) point of recent Jewish history are miracles that Hashem Himself performed, and none of them happened by chance. Any Jew who properly appreciates this will never again go out in public and protest an event set into motion by G-d Himself, no matter how much of a spiritual threat he believes that it is- he will look inside, do teshuva for his sins, and, with Hashem’s help, receive the clarity and direction required to continue as observant Jews, no matter what the circumstance. This is the threat, and promise of G-d to Moshe and Aharon in Parshat Metzorah, that “כי תבאו אל ארץ כנען… ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחזתכם,” if only we can see it for what it truly is.
And, for those of us who can and do see the good in the founding of the State of Israel and its flourishing as the Reishit Tzemichat Ge’ulateinu over the last sixty nine years, let us thank Hashem on Monday night for the opportunity that He’s given us to appreciate His miracles, accept his challenges, and succeed at them.
On Yom Ha’atzma’ut night, most communities in Israel and many abroad recite the following tefilah: “מי שעשה נסים לאבותינו ולנו וגאלנו מעבדות לחרות הוא יגאלנו גאולה שלמה בקרוב ויקבץ נדחנו מארבע כנפות הארץ, חברים כל ישראל ונאמר אמן.” May we all merit a complete fulfillment of this prayer, of a complete redemption, speedy ingathering of all of our brethren from all four corners of the earth to Eretz Yisrael, and, last and perhaps most important, all of Am Yisrael united in cooperation and friendship here, very, very soon.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Mo’adim L’simcha L’ge’ulah Shlaima!