My grandmother was one of the most fascinating people I ever met. Me’me, as we called her, fought in the French resistance, ran a DP camp in post-war Europe, was a professor in Columbia University and traveled the world extensively.
Me’me had been an emerging actress in pre-war Paris, and came from a family of well-heeled diplomats. A very attractive young lady, my grandmother was comfortable among the more glamorous echelons of society. She was “well appointed with the finest of accoutrements.” When the war broke out, and the Nazis captured Paris, she had many opportunities to flee occupied France for free France, but chose to join the French underground instead. She was not brought up in Paris, and by the time she moved there, she was not living an observant lifestyle, so no one knew her Jewish background. She had a non-Jewish last name, and fame and recognition from her work at the theater; so no one would suspect her of being Jewish.
She continued acting in the theater at nights, almost always performing before an audience whose best seats were reserved for the Nazi officers. But after finishing her acting, she would begin the work that was her true mission, smuggling Jews from occupied France to freedom on the other side of the border with the underground activists. Suspicion would be aroused if she were to suddenly start leading a more understated life, so she continued to shop at the finest boutiques in Paris while leading the secret life of a Jewish resistance fighter.
One day my grandmother excitedly set out to Hermes’ flagship store in Paris to pick up a pair of gloves she had ordered. Much to her consternation, the entire street was blocked off by German military vehicles. My Me’me was not one to get thrown off a mission easily. She was not going to let half a platoon of Nazis stop her from getting her Hermes gloves.
She also happened to know Paris like an accountant knows a calculator, so she simply went through a few back alleys and arrived at the back exit of Hermes, where the employees (in Hermes they are called personal shopping executives) would come in. She let herself into the store, and immediately discovered why the street was blocked off: Hermann Goering, the second most powerful Nazi and commander of the Luftwaffe, was shopping in Hermes. The whole store was filled with Nazi officers and bodyguards!
Cold fear coursed through her, as well as the repulsion of being in such close proximity to someone intimately involved in the butchery of her people. But she quickly calculated that her best move would be to pretend like everything was normal and go about her business with no hint of fright or hatred. She walked up to the counter and asked for her gloves. The Hermes employees assumed she was an accompanying celebrity or official and assisted her expediently.
As she was exiting, she came to a narrow point in the store where only one person could walk through at a time. Right then, Goering was headed in the same direction. Who would go first? (They couldn’t even possibly squeeze through together, because, as my Me’me told me, “Goering was a very fat man.”) Goering, ever the effusive and charming gentleman, gallantly motioned for my grandmother to go first and smilingly proclaimed, “Ladies First.” She went through and left the store, and continued smuggling Jews out of the danger zone, now with a new pair of Hermes gloves.
“Never confuse culture with morality,” my grandmother told me. “Did Goering have culture? Sure! He was of aristocratic heritage. He was a patron of the arts and attended opera, and he probably cried while listening to Wagner’s beautiful compositions! And he most certainly always let the lady go first. But did he have morals? Not a shred! He was the highest official in the Nazi hierarchy to authorize the paper on the Final Solution. Morality and culture have nothing to do with each other. Decency and morality come from a divine source, and no amount of culture can substitute for that.”
We can see the same lesson in the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt, the house of slavery.” It sounds redundant; we know that Egypt is the house of slavery! Perhaps God is telling us, look at the Egyptians, the pinnacle of culture in the world. They had papyri, pyramids, incredible embalming technique, astrology, art, hieroglyphics, brain surgery, and achievements in every field imaginable, yet they are still the house of slavery, the place in which your male children were thrown into the Nile, your babies stuck in the wall as bricks if the parents didn’t make enough bricks themselves. God is telling us that if we want to simply follow the prevailing dominant culture, then we may end up being the most cultured barbarians in the world.
Behind many great civilizations you will find incredible barbarism. The Greeks and Romans clubbed their children to death if they were born with any deformity or, sometimes, just for being born female. They would cheer gleefully as they watched thousands of people kill each other in “games” at the coliseums. The Germans were the most cultured people in the world with their composers, scientists, poets, and scholars leading the world in achievements, yet we saw what they were capable of in the Holocaust.
On Passover we celebrate the Jewish people’s redemption from a place of culture to a world of morality. They left behind the pyramids, hieroglyphics, advanced agriculture, and music of the dominant culture, and went out to the desert to learn the ethical precepts of genuine humanity and civilization, from the only true source, the Creator of humanity.
On Passover our mission is to see ourselves as if we are leaving Egypt. We must walk in the very same footsteps as our ancestors did, turning away from the dominant culture, refusing to think that it is automatically right because that is “culture,” and instead turn to the divine moral code of the Torah. This is how we discover real freedom and liberate our souls from the shackles of “cultural servitude.”
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha, Metzora, begins with the laws of how one purifies himself from tzara’at the spiritual leprosy we discussed last week. 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 mimics 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: Failures do what is tension relieving, while winners do what is goal achieving. –Dennis Waitley
Random Fact of the Week: The country of Andorra has a zero percent unemployment rate.
Funny Quip of the Week: Human beings use only 10% of their brains. Could you imagine how much we could accomplish if we used the other 60%?
Have a Marvelous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham