In Wallens Ridge State Prison, people who admitted their guilt were about as rare as fur traders at PETA rallies, but most people seemed to believe Joe “Shifty” Cullen’s protestations of innocence. He would admit to sneaking into an Alexandria, VA home on that fateful morning in June of 32’, but only to steal some food for his starving family. The body of the police chief was already there, and he couldn’t outrun the dozens of cops that appeared out of nowhere just as he was running out the back door. And so Joe “Shifty” Cullen came to spend the better part of his life in maximum security Wallens, doing shoe repair for the inmates and guards alike, ever shifting through the rooms and hallways dropping off shiny repaired shoes with a smile and a joke.
His family had long since moved out west, his last visit was from his sister over a decade ago, but Shifty didn’t seem to mind as long as there was a boot that needed rethreading or a shoe that needed a patch. Even the roughest inmates left Shifty alone, King Tiny sent the last person who messed with him to the infirmary for a month with broken bones all up and down. Eventually, Shifty became some sort of jail mascot, always there, always cheerful, not very strong, bright, or pretty, but good for a pick-you-up when things were dark.
For the first twenty years of his incarceration Shifty came to the parole board hearings each year with his shirt tucked in real nice, his hair slicked back with Shinola, and his cleanest clothes, but they always laughed when he came in. “Shifty,” the board chairman would say, “we do love you ‘round here, but you done keeled the police chief! You ain’t gettin parole until angels come on down from heaven to get you out!”
In 1968 the angels came knocking. The deputy police chief confessed to the crime on his deathbed, and in a whirlwind of publicity and fanfare, Joe “Shifty” Cullen was given a new suit, a new hat, and a limousine ride to freedom. The driver dropped him off in downtown Roanoke and wished him well, and for the first time in thirty-six years Shifty was free.
Things had changed while he was gone, big cars growled up and down the streets belching smoke, buses sped around with reckless abandon, and nothing was where it was supposed to be. He couldn’t find a drugstore with a soda fountain, there were no pushcart shoe cobblers for him to find employment with, and everyone called him Pops as they rudely rushed on around him.
Two days after being set free, Shifty walked into a bank carrying a .22 caliber pistol. He shot it twice into the air, gave the gun to a frightened teller, and broke down crying. As the police gently deposited him into the back of the squad car, he kept repeating, “Tell them I’m from Wallens… Tell them I’m from Wallens…”
The phenomenon described above is not a rare one by any means. Tragically, every year people commit recidivist acts just to get back to what they know best. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, many freedmen chose to remain working for their owners. Just seven days after our forefather’s miraculous exodus, they complained to Moshe, “Isn’t this the thing about which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert! (Exodus 14:12)”
Throughout their journey in the desert, they brought up this nostalgia for Egypt, the house of bondage, time and again.
“They said to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:4)
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:5)
“Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?” (Numbers 20:5)
True freedom is much more than a lack of walls. Freedom can be frightening to some, downright dangerous to others, and wasted on those who don’t use that freedom to better themselves and the world around them. It was for this reason that throughout the exodus narrative you will never see the line made famous by Charlton Heston, “Let My People Go.” Every single time Moshe said those words, they were only part of a sentence with the end of it always saying what the goal of the freedom was, “Let My people go…and they will serve Me.” (Exodus 7:16 et al.)
In describing freedom the Indian philosopher and Nobel prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore would use the following metaphor:
I have a violin string on my table. It is free, but it is not free to produce music. To be free to produce music it must be stretched taut over my violin. Then it won’t be free, but it will be free to produce music.
The value of the Jewish exodus was only realized when they received the Torah 50 days later. It was then that we received the Torah, the music notes that would allow us to play the most exquisite music for the next three millennia in hundreds of countries around the globe!
But before the Jews could receive this divine music book, they needed to refine themselves to the point that they could be given that book, and that is what they were busy with for the 49 days between their exodus and the Mt Sinai revelation. This time was almost like a retraining period where people like Shifty would go to get acclimated to the real world after such a long time in bondage.
We too have a 49 day period to retrain ourselves and prepare ourselves for Shavuot when each one of us receives the notes for their instrument (no one gets the same notes, our nation is like one massive 12 million piece symphony, with each person playing a different instrument with a slightly different arrangement, and together we produce harmonic beauty). Each day we count the sefiras ha’omer counting up toward that great day, when we will be set free again. And each day is an opportunity to prepare ourselves so that when we get our freedom we can handle it right.
It is a time set aside for being extra-sensitive to the feelings and sensibilities of others around us. We should try to increase our learning and praying. We should attempt to find at least one thing that we will do better and different during this sefiras ha’omer.
It is not just about counting the days, but about making the days count.
Parsha Dvar Torah
The two Parshiot read this week, Tazria and Metzora, deal primarily with an affliction called tzara’at. As Nachmonides explains, this was not a typical form of leprosy (which could be healed easily with some Noni juice and a little ginko-biloba, the common cure for pretty much everything today) but a spiritual ailment which manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgression, the most common being lashon hara, which is gossip and slander.
As part of the purification process, the metzorah is commanded to bring a number of items that symbolize messages he needs to inculcate. The one trait that characterizes any gossiper is arrogance, as this gives him the callousness to hurt other’s feelings. Therefore, the metzorah brings some hyssop branches, a lowly plant meant to remind the metzorah to become more humble. Additionally, he brings a piece of crimson wool, whose dye is made of a pigment from a lowly snail, which also reminds him to lower himself.
The third thing he brings is a piece of cedar wood, which is quite baffling, as the cedar tree is anything but lowly. Au contraire, it is a very tall tree reaching heights of 120- 180 feet tall! Rashi (in Arachin, 16A) explains that the cedar wood reminds the person of the haughtiness that he needs to purge from his character. But that leaves us with the question of why it is wrapped together with the hyssop that symbolizes the opposite pole
My Rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, once offered the following explanation, which is very instructive for anyone on a pathway to personal betterment. There are two ploys used by the yetzer hara (the evil inclination, the little red guy in our heads with the pitchfork) to prevent us from growth. The first one he uses is inflating our ego to the point where we believe that we are just fine the way we are, and we don’t need to change anything in our lives. When we feel this way, we can come to the sin of slander. Such a situation needs a spiritual affliction, such as tzara’at, to wake us up to the reality that we do need to change. As far as the evil inclination is concerned, strategy #1 works just fine for most people, and for that reason most people live their lives without a constant, urgent drive to change.
But what does the evil inclination do when he bumps up against those individuals that are really bent on change? He changes gears, does a 180, makes a U-turn, flips a turn about, or if you have French in your blood, pulls a volte-face, but I think you get the point. Now he comes to that same person and tries to minimize him, put him down, and tell him that he is a nobody, he is weak, he can’t possibly change anyway so why try. Or he tells the person that they are so insignificant that what they do make no difference to G-d or to the world.
After a review of the two possible thought patterns that can deter a person from change, we understand what the cedar wood is doing in the metzorah’s purification process. He has two items (hyssop and crimson wool) to remind him to be humble, as arrogance led him to gossip and slander in the first place, and it is clear that he saw himself as above others. But there is still a fear that he will swing to the other extreme, and begin to say, “I’m just a nobody; my words don’t make a difference to anyone,” or, “I’m such a bad person, so steeped in my ego that I will never be able to really change for the better!” To counteract this, there is also a piece of a towering tree involved in his purification to remind him that he has unlimited potential, that he can grow and soar and ascend to heights he never fathomed reaching!
The first of the two Parshiot we read this week, Tazria, begins with laws of impurity associated with childbirth. The idea is that life alone in not an end, rather life’s purpose is that we elevate ourselves, To this end, when a child is brought into this world the mother goes through a process of impurity which then leads to purity. This mimicks the type of life she wants her child to lead – one of growing, and elevating themselves from their basic state to a higher state.
After that, the Torah launches into the laws of tzara’at (see above) for the rest of the Parsha. It talks about the different forms of tzara’at, the way the Kohen makes his diagnoses, and what the metzora does after being diagnosed. One major part of his “medicine” is the law requiring him to sit in isolation for a week. This is supposed to help him realize how he made others feel when he spoke negatively about them, and caused rifts, dissension, and isolation.
The last section of the parsha deals with tzara’at that appears on clothing. (No, that reddish or greenish blotch on that suit is not the latest styling from Versace, it is actually a spiritual disease manifesting itself on clothing!) Our Sages explains that because of G-d’s great compassion, one does not immediately get tzara’at upon his body. Rather, he first gets it on his house, as is described in our second Parsha, Metzora. Hopefully, he learns his lesson and stops gossiping and slandering, however, if he doesn’t, it starts to afflict his clothing (a little bit too close for comfort). If the person continues to ignore these blatant cues telling him to shape up, he then gets the full force affliction on his body, for which the atonement process is the longest.
Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora upon the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. If you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week, and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man.
The torah next discusses how tzara’at can afflict a house. Although we explained above that tzara’at of the house was the first step to awakening someone to change, the commentators note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in the walls of their homes. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures! If you are wondering why someone seems to get rewarded for sinning, I’m glad. A. Because you’re still reading, B. because you’re thinking critically about what your reading. Please go out, get an answer and email me back with it, or email me that you’ve given up, and I will send you the answer!
The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contaminations. Being that today there is no tzara’at to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!
Quote of the Week: Honesty is the first chapter of the Book of Wisdom. ~ Thomas Jefferson
Random Fact of the Week: A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle!
Funny Quip of the Week: A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.
Have a Preternatural Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham