While we may think of illnesses as needing physical cures, the torah considers such a condition to require a spiritual solution.
By Rabbi Roni Tabick
A patient once went to see the doctor, complaining that she hadn’t been feeling well for several days. The doctor examined her, went away and came back with three large jars of pills.
“Take the green pill with a big glass of water first thing in the morning,” the doctor said. “Then the blue pill with a big glass of water after lunch. Just before bed, take the red pill with another big glass of water.”
The patient was upset that she had to take so many pills, and nervously she asked “Doctor, what’s my problem?”
The doctor replied, “You’re not drinking enough water.”
In this week’s double parasha we learn about how to deal with the condition known as tzara’at, often translated as leprosy. While we may think of illnesses as needing physical cures, the torah considers such a condition to require a spiritual solution:
“The priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed.” (Lev 14:4).
Like the nervous patient, Rashi, the classic 11th century commentator, wants to know why there are so many parts of this sacrifice, and what each part signifies for the spiritual and psychological health of the afflicted person.
Rashi explains (based on the Talmud in Arachin 16a-b) that cedarwood, coming from the loftiest of trees, must be brought as a sign of haughtiness, while the hyssop is a lowly plant, and the crimson wool is called tola’at, named after a worm, both symbols of humility.
Just as in ancient thought the illness of tzara’at required a spiritual cure, so too it was considered to have a moral cause, and arrogance was considered a likely candidate (see the story of King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26 for an example). The haughty person had to bring both cedarwood to represent their former state, and crimson yarn and hyssop as a sign of the need for humility about their place in the universe.
Today, we don’t expect our physical conditions to be cured exclusively by prayer and sacrifice but the torah still has much to tell us about arrogance and overconfidence. While the sickness may be a result of hubris, there is still cedarwood included in the offering. The arrogance is not given up, but is tempered by other ingredients, balanced out with the right amount of modesty.
Arrogance has a place in our lives – we need to think well of ourselves, to be confident in our own abilities, to think that we matter to God and the universe. Yet this perspective must be balanced by its opposite – that we are simply one of billions of human beings, that all we have is dependent on God, that we are here to make the world better for everyone, and not just ourselves.
The patient saw the pills and thought that they were meant to effect the cure. Similarly, we may look at the sacrifice offered for tzara’at and think that there was something magical involved, yet if we adopt a position of humility, and recognise that the torah contains wisdom we may not comprehend, we can learn an important lesson:
For every one dose of arrogance, take two doses of humility.
Roni Tabick is a third year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. On completion of his studies, he hopes to return to work in the Masorti community.