שביבי אש
לסדר מצורע

זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ

This shall be the law of the leper. (Leviticus 14:1)

This is alluded to in what is written (Psalms 34:13-15): "Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" ( מִי הָאִישׁ הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ ). This may be compared to the case of the peddler who used to go round the towns in the vicinity of Sepphoris, crying out: "Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?" and drew great crowds round him. R. Jannai was sitting and expounding in his room and heard the peddler's call. He said to him, "please come here and sell it to me." The peddler replied, "Neither you nor people like you require that [which I have to sell]." The Rabbi insisted, and the peddler went up to him and he came up. The peddler took out a book of Pslams and showed him the passage, "Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good." What is written {immediately] thereafter?-- "Keep your tongue from evil, depart from evil and do good." . . . R. Jannai said: "All my life have I been reading this passage, but did not know how it was to be explained until this hawker came and made it clear," viz., "Who is the man who desires life...? Keep your tongue from evil, etc." It is for the same reason that Moses addressed a warning to Israel, saying to them, a'This shall be the law of the leper (מְּצֹרָע)" i.e. the law relating to one that gives currency to an evil report (מוציא [שם] רע).

And the question is what did R. Jannai not understand about this verse, and what did he learn after the peddler showed him the verse that he hadn't known before? Many have already discussed the verse, and our master has also offered an explanation from his soul.

What is very obscure about this verse is that at first it offers life to anyone who desires it at the minimal price: "keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." But is this not a small thing? And yet his life will be saved by it? (הלא מצער היא ותרי נפשו באלה). But then the Scripture takes back everything by then saying: "Depart from evil." In other words, observe all the negative commandments of the Torah. "And do good." In other words, also perform all the positive commandments in the Torah. But if one can gain life only by fulfilling the Torah in its entirety, then why did the Scripture at first mention just the commandment to guard one's tongue from evil?

However, the "life" that this verse is referring to is to avoid becoming a leper (מְּצֹרָע) inasmuch as a leper is considered to be like a dead person. The point of the verse is thus to admonish against the sin of slander for which one is punished with leprosy, as is suggested by the word "מְּצֹרָע" which is a short form of "מוציא [שם] רע". The verse is therefore trying to provide us with advice about how to avoid sin of slander, and it does so in the light of a Midrash which says that speaking ill about a person causes the death of three people: the one who slanders, the one who listens to the slander, and the one who is slandered because of some action of his that caused others to speak ill about him. And this is what the Psalmist was referring to when he asked "who is the man who desires life?" That is, who wants to avoid being stricken with leprosy? "Keep your tongue from evil." This is the general principle, which is followed by specific details. "And your lips from speaking deceit" means "do not slander another person." "Depart from evil" means "distance yourself from those who slander others and do not care what they say about others." However, one has not yet secured his life against the possibility of punishment. For one must also "do good" by doing what is right and just in the eyes of G-d and man (הישר והטוב בעיני אלקים ואדם), so that he will not give sinners a pretext for slandering him.

Now when this peddler shouted out his announcement "who wants to buy an elixir of life?" and then took out a book of Psalms from his pocket and showed R. Jannai this verse, he taught R. Jannai that the verse was merely an antidote for the affliction of leprosy. For the business of peddlers is to sell antidotes and treatments to those afflicted with, or who seek to avoid, illness. From this, R. Jannai understood that the entire verse was referring only to the sin of slander. That insight resolved all the difficulties with the verse that had previously troubled him.

וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וְלָקַח לַמִּטַּהֵר שְׁתֵּי צִפֳּרִים חַיּוֹת טְהֹרוֹת

Then shall the priest command to take for him who is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean. (Leviticus 14:4)

Rashi comments: Because the plagues of leprosy come as a punishment for slander, which is the result of chattering, birds, which chatter continuously with a twittering sound, are compulsory for the leper's purification.

וְעֵץ אֶרֶז (and cedar wood) (Id.) Rashi comments: This lofty tree was used because plagues come as a punishment for haughtiness.

וּשְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת וְאֵזֹב (and scarlet and hyssop) (Id.) Rashi comments: What remedy should he use to be healed? Let him, abandoning his pride, regard himself as a worm (tola'at) and as hyssop (eizov)

Now one could ask about these symbolic hints why one bird was not enough to suggest chattering and why one was slaughtered and the other let go into the open field. Moreover, the symbolic comparison of the cedar to haughtiness and the symbolic comparison of the worm and the hyssop to meekness do not seem to conform to the symbolic interpretation given to the two birds, because the birds indicate how he committed his sin, while the cedar and the worm and the hyssop indicate both the sin and the manner in which it must be repaired.

It therefore appears to our master that the metaphorical hints can be reconciled by recognizing that one who speaks slanderously is an exceedingly haughty person who says "I and only I," who sees the defects of everyone but himself. He mocks and assigns blame to everyone right and left. This is an evil affliction and a familiar ailment. However, the extremely humble and meek person who shuts his eyes not to see the evil done by his neighbor, by refusing to rebuke his neighbor and cause him to depart from his evil ways, does not conduct himself properly either. Instead of standing in the breach to do battle for G-d against the destroyers of the faith, he hides himself away. This is why in the Talmud (Hulin 89a) the Sages deduce from the verse (Psalms 58:2)

What is the meaning of the verse: "Indeed in silence speak righteousness; judge uprightly the sons of men" (הַאֻמְנָם אֵלֶם צֶדֶק תְּדַבֵּרוּן מֵישָׁרִים תִּשְׁפְּטוּ בְּנֵי אָדָם)? What should be a man's pursuit in this world? He should be silent. Perhaps he should be so with regard to the words of the Torah? It says therefore, 'Speak righteousness'.

If it is indeed best for one to be mute without opening one's mouth to argue with others to criticize them, one must nevertheless "speak righteousness" in a mighty voice and reprove the misdeeds and injustices of others for the sake of righteousness and fairness, so that others may repent of their misconduct. Now the leper is one who is haughty and arrogant, one who speaks freely and erroneously. So if we want to offer advice to him about how to improve his conduct, we must first instruct him to become modest and humble and give up his conceit. But, at the same time, we must also teach him that he should not go to the other extreme of excessive meekness. For there is a time for everything - a time to go out boldly against those who do evil, when one must raise himself up for the sake of G-d to fight with an outstretched arm. This is the symbolism of the two live birds. One bird must be slaughtered to show that the leper must extinguish that propensity to speak which leads to sin. However, the bird that is sent out over the open field is meant to show that, when the time comes, one must speak out publicly and raise one's voice to speak out for the sake of the Eternal. And there is a similar symbolism in the cedar tree and the hyssop and worm, for sometimes one must raise himself up as high as a cedar to do battle, but at other times one must lower his soul as low as a hyssop and a worm.