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Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Walking the Middle Path


Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) said, “which is the path that a person should select for himself? Anything that is tiferet for the one who does it, and tiferet for him from others”

(Avot 2:1)

All of the days that the blemish is upon him he shall be in a state of total spiritual impurity; he shall dwell alone, in a dwelling outside the camp.

(Leviticus 13:46)

“One who wishes to become pious, let him study the Order of Nezikin (damages)” (Bava Kamma 30a).  As you may know, there are six divisions of the Oral Law, one of which deals with what we would all recognize as similar to the legal codes of our own modern-day societies.  Seder Nezikin comprises civil and criminal law, torts, property law, damages, court proceedings, law enforcement, corporal and capital punishment, witnesses, land ownership, and oaths.  If people studied the Order of Nezikin, they would learn how to interact lawfully with others, respect their physical and emotional safety and property, and would know the value of truth and honesty in business dealings and legal testimony.  In short, they would know how to be members of a society based on faith and integrity.  

Curiously, Seder Nezikin also contains the tractate Avot, or, as we know it, “Pirkei Avot”.  As Pirkei Avot is a repository of the ethical teachings of our sages, it becomes clear that the relationship between law and ethics is inseparable in Torah, and moreover, that the practice and implementation of halacha (Torah law) must be built upon a foundation of ethics.  When we consider Rav Yehuda’s statement above, we have to realize that, although it refers to the entire order of Nezikin, it most certainly applies to Pirkei Avot.

Rabbi Chaim Vital z”l notes a certain distinction between ethics and law, namely that law is related to the divine soul, while ethics are related to the animal soul (human beings are amalgams of the spiritual and the physical, and have levels of soul that correspond to both).  And while the mitzvot of the Torah represent the law in its entirety—whether we are dealing with the seven Noahide Laws or the six hundred and thirteen laws that apply to Jews—the area of character attributes are not included within the framework of the mitzvot.  However, that is not to undermine their importance.  In fact, Rabbi Chaim Vital z”l states that the reason that the attributes of a person are not included in the framework is because positive attributes are the prerequisite to the fulfilment of mitzvot.  One who is a ba’al midot tovot (a person of good character traits) will find it easy to fulfill the mitzvot (see Shaarei Kedusha I:2)  The ultimate meaning created by the fulfilment of Torah must be built atop a foundation of basic, human meaning, of mentchlichkeit.

In our parsha, we learn about the metzora, one who has been stricken with tzara’at (often mistranslated as “leprosy”).  The metzora, of all of the people classified as ritually impure, has the peculiar obligation to sit alone outside the camp.  In order to clarify why this is so, Rashi (loc. cit.) quotes the Sages and tells us that the metzora is afflicted because he has spoken lashon hora (literally, “evil speech”, such as negative gossip), and that has caused disharmony between people.  Therefore, he is forced to sit alone, outside the camp, to experience the alienation he has caused others to feel.  In fact, he cannot even keep company with other people judged to be ritually impure.

Here we can understand the beginning of Rebbi’s statement: which is the path that a person should select for himself?  Man, as a choosing agent, must exercise the responsibility that comes with that capacity.  It may be true that we are each “minted” in such a way that we have specific tendencies by default.  Nevertheless, we are obligated to transcend these in order to become G-d-fearing, values-oriented people.  The metzora, like all of us, made choices as to what to do with his or her power of speech.  With our mishna in mind, we learn that what we say should be the fruit of careful judgement.  Too often, we shoot off our mouths because it feels cathartic to do so, but the impact of our words is not always positive.        

The word tiferet in the mishna quoted above has several definitions, including beautiful, glorious, and harmonious.  In Kabbalistic terms, tiferet is a Divine Attribute that suggests a mixture of chesed (kindness) and gevurah (restraint) that blend together to create something that, at once, is a balance of the two attributes, but is also something entirely new: a beauty that comes about through the peaceful blending-together of separate or opposite items.  A rainbow is a good example of this.


Assuming the definition of tiferet as “harmonious”, Rebbi is advising us that our actions in the world, including our mitzvah-actions, should bring harmony within ourselves as well as harmony between ourselves and others.  One who hoards his money may feel content with himself, but others may resent him for his miserliness.  On the other hand, one who empties his pockets entirely may be admired by the recipients of his money, but will create pain for himself (see Rabbi Ovadya MiBartenura, loc. cit.)  Therefore, the preferred path with regard to personal character traits is almost always the middle one, the balanced one.

May we be blessed to develop true integrity, and bring harmony to our world, within and without.


By Rabbi Tani Burton

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