If you live near a large metropolitan area, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon. It probably scratched your brain for a few seconds, but you had no explanation for it, and then you got distracted by the car swerving ahead of you, or the podcast you were listening to, and it went away. You may have had multiple brain scratches over the years from this phenomenon, but eventually you accept it as another unexplainable mystery of city life, like those slow moving street cleaning machines with vacuums and rotating brooms that leave more dirt than they clean, or people that have no problem riding an elevator to the 57th floor but are afraid of a spider.
The phenomenon I’m referring to is the skyscrapers that are dark at night except for one floor that is blazingly lit. What is happening on that floor? Are the accountants celebrating finishing their Q3 reports by an all night party at the office? Are lawyers on that floor working on an M&A deal with their counterparts in Shanghai, which is exactly 12 hours ahead of us? Did someone forget to turn out the lights when he was the last one out on the 28th floor? But even stranger is the fact that if you drive by the same building two hours later, that floor will be dark, and somehow a different floor will be lit up! Did the accountants totally trash the 28th floor, and they moved the party down to the 24th? Is there a different group of lawyers working with a team in Mumbai, which is always 9.5 hours ahead of us? Is someone just playing with all of us and randomly turning on an off different stories of the building so we start doubting our sanity?
The real answer is none of the above. It is simply the cleaning crew working its way through the building. Most office buildings have two separate lives, 7am-9pm when the buildings see the bustle of commerce and meetings, coffee room conversations and printers jamming, and 9pm-7am, when the cleaning crew comes through and methodically cleans the building floor by floor from the top down. It’s quiet work, the buildings are mostly empty, and the janitors usually play music from their cart, and might even sing along on a good night.
They empty out the trash, vacuum the carpet, mop the floor, clean the coffee room from spills, wrappers and overflowing garbage. They clean and sanitize the restrooms, and make sure they are well stocked with soap, toilet paper, and paper towels. They are the ones turning on the lights on the 28th floor for half an hour and then turning off the lights, taking their carts down the elevator to the 27th floor, turning on the lights there and getting to work on that. If you were to pass by the building at 3am, you’d probably see the lights on on the 9th floor, and by 6:30am they’ve done the whole building and are heading back to get changed into their civilian clothes and take the subway back home, while the workers are flooding into the city to start their day of work. They are the quiet heroes, making our workplaces livable, workable, and clean, and most of us never see them, think of them, or give them the gratitude they are due!
Fascinatingly, your body has an overnight cleaning crew as well. You lay your head down on the pillow and drift off into sweet relief, but your body starts doing all sorts of scrubbing. The pineal gland keeps the melatonin flowing so that you stay comfortably asleep. The pituitary gland releases hormones that helps your body grow and repair itself. Your immune system releases an army of proteins called cytokines, which search out and fight infections, inflammation, and trauma, which is why sleep is so important for people who are fighting off a flu or cold.
But perhaps the most striking part of the sleep cleaning crew in your body is the brain scrubdown you get each night. Your brain is the most important organ in the body; not only does it think, remember, reason, and reflexively react, it also regulates our temperature, heart rate, breathing, immune response, and hormone production. If its resume is not impressive yet, please add that it’s the control center for all of our senses, interpreting everything we see, feel, taste, hear, and smell. There is no computer in the world that is even 10% as powerful as a human brain.
To protect that most important piece of hardware, we have a skull which is nice thick piece of bone acting as a helmet to protect the noggin at all times. But even in the skull helmet, our brain could get quite a thwack when we bump into a wall, or G-d forbid get into a crash and slam our head into the steering wheel. So the body floats the brain in a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), insuring that any impacts on our brain are cushioned from direct hits. But of course in the amazing body that G-d gave us, almost nothing does only one job, the CSF also had a role in clearing out toxins.
But at night when we go to sleep, that is when the cerebrospinal fluid really gets into action, pushing it’s cleaning cart all around the brain, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning out the garbage, wiping up spills, and singing to itself the whole time. In 2019 a team of researchers in Boston University hooked up a group of young healthy people to specialized imaging equipment and then saw something amazing. While we sleep, the brain will get flooded with oxygenated blood, then the blood will flow out, the neurons get quiet for a few hundred milliseconds and then cerebrospinal fluid rushes in and pulses in waves, essentially power washing our brain! Proteins like beta-amyloids that can cause negative plaque buildups in our brain are washed away and drained out by the cerebrospinal fluid waves.
We may go to sleep at night, but our body sure doesn’t, there are billions of quiet hero cells working all night to make our bodies livable, workable, and clean. Most of us are blissfully unaware of their existence, and even fewer of us ponder their miraculous existence and express gratitude to G-d appropriately for giving us such incredible armies of cells doing nothing but keeping us healthy!
In the morning services, we usually link together the blessings of Asher Yatzar and Elokai Neshoma, one thanking G-d for our amazing body, and one for the pristine and amazing soul He has given us. There are so many similarities between our body and soul, G-d always designs the physical outer world to be a reflection of the inner body, and by linking the two blessing we highlight that linkage.
Just like our body, there is a cerebrospinal fluid for the soul, something that washes over our soul when it’s getting overheated, something that cleans out the soul plaque that threatens to calcify us. There is so much that we see, hear, or think on a daily basis that is so offensive to our soul. Our soul was blown into us by G-d himself, and as such it is an incredibly divine, pure and pristine entity. When it hears people speaking gossip or lies, it must cringe. When we think thoughts of jealousy or licentiousness, it shrink in horror. When we talk to other people in a haughty way, say words that we don’t want our kids to say, make crude jokes, it must recoil in pain! Just one day in the modern world must attack the soul like a spiritual jackhammer! So how does it stick with us? How does it remain positive and keep pushing us towards holiness, encouraging us softly to become our best selves?
The Talmud recounts (Kiddushin, 30B) that G-d tells us, “I created the Evil Inclanation, and I created the Torah as an antidote.” The Torah, being a G-dly wisdom, is a salve to the soul, a protective and healing agent that fights off the inflammation, trauma, and infection of the physical world and all of its excesses. And as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, OBM tells us in the Path of the Just (Chapter 5), it is the only viable solution to the challenges of the Evil Inclination. If one looks to other solutions, if one thinks they can find a solution for evil from some other source, it is like a person who ignores all of his doctor’s medical advice and decides to cure his diabetes using whatever makes the most sense to him. We would see this person grinding up his herbs, taking ice baths, or eating lots of fish, and we would say to him, “Fool! Three is a doctor who spent ten years of his life studying medicine, and has helped save the lives of thousands of diabetics, and he’s telling you the proper course of treatment and you think your ice baths are going to do a better job!?!”
How much more so with G-d, because He is the One who created the Evil Inclination, so surely no one knows better how to beat it, and He told us that the only solution is to study the Torah and adopt its ways! Hashem is so confident in this remedy that He says (Eicha Rabbasi, Pesichta Bet) “If only they would leave me but preserve my Torah, [I would not be concerned], for the Divine light that is within it will bring him back to the good.”
There is something inherent in Torah that bathes the soul in good, that turns us away from our worst urges, and pushes us to our noblest selves. Even when we fall, even if we turn away from G-d, even if we’ve made really big mistakes for years on end, even when we feel like we’re being tossed by waves of moral chaos, studying Torah will turn around our ship and bring it back to safe waters. The Torah is the silent hero, just let it into the building, and it will make our lives livable, workable, and clean, it will protect us, repair us, and build us, and ultimately bring us to fulfill our greatest destiny.
Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu, uma naim gorolainu, uma yaffah yirushaseinu!
How praiseworthy are we, how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance!
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