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Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

Vayikra, 14:2“This is the law of the metzorah on the day of his purification, and he shall be brought (v’huvah) to the Kohen.”
Bamidbar, 6:13“This is the law of the Nazir on the day his abstinence is completed, he shall bring himself (yavi oso) to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

In the beginning of the Torah portion of Metzorah, the Torah outlines the process of purification for the metzorah, a person how has become stricken with a spiritual disease known as tzaraat. The verse uses difficult language to explain the beginning of the process – It states that the metzorah is brought to the Kohen. We know that the metzorah is not carried to the Kohen, rather he comes on his own two feet. Why then does the Torah use the passive tense?

This question is exacerbated by an almost identical introduction to the purification process of the nazir, a person who abstains from wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact with the dead. However, there, the Torah describes the process in the way that we would have expected – “he shall bring himself…” What is the difference between the metzorah and nazir?1

It seems that the situations of the metzorah and nazir are drastically different and this is the key to the difference in word usage. Why does a person become a metzorah? One reason is that he spoke lashon hara, derogatory speech, and a second cause is that he was overly stingy with his money. The common denominator between both flaws is that the person cannot control his natural impulses.

With regard to speech, he derives pleasure from speaking badly about others, even though he knows it is wrong. With regard to money, he is so attached to money, that he is unwilling to part with it, even when he knows that he should. In both cases, the metzorah is subject to external sources, whether it be his mouth, or money. Consequently, he is not in control of himself. For such a person, the Torah emphasizes that he shall be brought to the Kohen, rather than that he will come on his own volition. This means that as a result of his lack of self-control, he commits actions that cause him to become a metzorah against his own better judgment, and he is not free enough to come himself, rather he is brought there.

The nazir is a totally different category of person. He realizes the risks of become a slave to one’s instincts, in this case, the temptations of wine and immorality. Before he lets that happen, he seizes the initiative and separates himself from wine, and abstains from beautifying his appearance, in order to avoid sin and maintain his person freedom. In essence, he is saying, “I am going to be in charge of myself”. The Torah relates that such a person comes of his own volition to begin his period of being a nazir because he is in control of himself.

We learn from here that a person may want to act a certain way, but if he is enslaved to his impulses, then inevitably he will act according to those impulses. This idea is demonstrated in a fascinating incident involving the Rambam cited by the Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Brodie.2

The Rambam had a disagreement with the non-Jewish scholars. They believed that one could train an animal to act with the same level of sophistication as human beings; their natural instinct could be tamed and they could be taught to act like human beings. The Rambam disagreed, arguing that it was impossible to change the nature of an animal.

The scholars sought to prove their point by training a cat to be a waiter, thereby proving that one can change an animal’s nature. After several weeks of training, they proudly assembled a large group of people, including the Rambam himself, to view the wonderful spectacle. Indeed, the cat lived up to its expectations; it began by setting the tables and when each person came in, the cat approached him and bowed down to him, treating him with great honor. Then the cat went to bring a tray carrying a bottle of wine to serve his guests.

Suddenly, the Rambam took out a small box and opened its lid – out jumped a mouse. As soon as the cat saw the mouse, it dropped the tray on the floor and all the wine spilt everywhere, whilst the cat had resigned its waiter duties in order to catch the mouse! Seeing this, everyone admitted that the Rambam was right and that it was impossible to teach a cat to permanently change its nature. All they could do was to teach it to act in a civilized fashion as long as there was no mouse around, but as soon as he saw the mouse all his natural tendencies came flooding back.

The metzorah is in a similar situation to the cat – he may well want to act in a certain way, but he has not developed his self-control to be able to withstand the challenges he faces. The Nazir recognizes that he is at peril of falling into the same trap as the metzorah but he takes the initiative before he falls.

Nowadays, the methodology of the Nazir is not necessarily appropriate for many people in many situations. However, the idea that one must try to nip in the bud his desires before they overtake him, is still of great relevance. Only by learning Torah and working on one’s character can a person succeed in achieving true freedom.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


  1. The answer given is based on Rav Yerucham Levovitz cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  2. Cited in Darchei Mussar, Parshas Chayei Sarah, p.54.

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