In 1948, things did not look promising for the Jews. The armies of Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, prepared to attack the new State of Israel as soon as the British pulled out, vowing to push the Jews into the sea. In Tzfat, where 80,000 Arabs surrounded 3,000 Jews living in the Jewish quarter, the Jews braced for the worst.
One night, the British told the Jewish community they were leaving Tzfat in the morning and had reliable intelligence that the Arabs were planning a massive attack immediately following their departure. They urged the Jews to leave.
They assumed the Jews would panic, but not a single one left the city.
As British pulled out of Tzfat, thousands of Arabs armed with rifles, knives and clubs attacked the Jewish quarter. The few hundred Jewish fighters were hopelessly outnumbered, and fierce fighting broke out at the entrance to the old city.
The Citadel, with its strategic command of the entire area, was a British fortress. Jewish fighters had to take it in order to survive. But the Arabs already had command of it. Members of the Haganah planted explosives at the base of the Citadel, determined to blast their way through the thick walls in a desperate attempt to save the Jewish quarter and hold out against the onslaught. Just as they were ready to detonate, a freak rainstorm broke out, soaking the wires and preventing the explosion.
Meanwhile, down at the entrance to the Jewish quarter, things were going from bad to worse. In desperation, the Jews decided to employ their last resort.
With a heavy British blockade, precious few arms had been smuggled in, so the Jews had developed what they hoped would be an answer to Arab artillery. Called the Davidka, it was essentially a homemade mortar. One could fill it with rocks, nails and metal balls and fire a deadly stream at the advancing enemy.
It was a brilliant idea, but it did not work. It did, however, produce an incredibly loud explosion, and the Jews had nothing to lose. Faced with thousands of Arabs, without enough bullets to fire at them all, they fired the Davidka just as the rain began.
To their amazement, the Arabs turned and ran.
Not quite understanding what was happening, they fired the Davidka three more times until the entire Arab army had fled.
It was only after the war that they found out what had happened. The Arabs knew that most of the people behind America’s atomic bomb were Jewish (notably Einstein and Oppenheimer), and they had heard of acid rain. So they assumed the Jews had set off an atomic bomb, and the rest is history.
Every tour guide worth his salt will show tourists this spot and ask: was this a miracle? Or just a freak of nature?
In Tzfat, there are no miracles, because all of nature is miraculous, and miracles surround us every day.
This week’s portion, Tazria, focuses on the issue of tzara’at, closely associated with (but not quite) leprosy. In ancient times, this affliction did not send you to the doctor. Rather, the Torah tells us, when a person saw signs of tzara’at, he went to visit a kohen. Tradition teaches that tzara’at was the direct consequence of slander and tale-bearing. It was an opportunity for a person to do some introspection and consider the error of his ways.
The Sefer HaChinuch points out (mitzvah 168) that this process enabled us to recognize the power of Divine Providence, and relates to the larger issues of destiny, reward and punishment, and the balance between nature and miracle.
One of the many signs of tzara’at for which an expert kohen had to be consulted was when a hair on a person’s body turned a particular shade of white or yellow. The challenge was not only to find the correct shade, but to be sure that indeed there were two hairs which had turned white, because when only one hair had turned white, the person remained in a state of ritual purity.
The difference between being a metzorah and being pure was one hair.
The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (15:3) shares a magnificent insight: “You will not find a single strand of hair for which G-d did not create a follicle in the skin, so that one [hair] should not benefit from what ‘belongs’ to another.”
On the one hand, consider the import of this Midrash: I can learn to become a more ethical human being by studying the hairs on my forearm! After all, if every hair has its place, how much more must every human being have a place in G-d’s plan. Everything is a message.
The Baal Shem Tov suggests: if you see someone desecrating Shabbat, do not assume it is because you are meant to exhort them on the error of their ways, but that it is a message that there is something missing in your Shabbat. Imagine if we lived life this way, struggling to fix ourselves instead of everybody else.
But if I took the time to analyze every leaf and twig, I would never get to the synagogue in the morning. And yet to ignore the many messages that cross our path is to lose so many opportunities to grow. So how does one find the balance?
In fact, this is the famous question of the Ramban: why go to the doctor? Every morning we ask Hashem to heal us, so isn’t there an element of blasphemy in it? (Note that the Ramban was himself a doctor!)
This question is at the root of a controversy that remains a prominent social issue in Israel today. If after 2,000 years, Hashem has decided it is time to bring us home, who are we to take it into our own hands? Maybe the best thing to do is to immerse ourselves in Torah and good deeds and leave the defense of the Jewish people up to G-d?
And yet the halacha is clear: “If a person comes to kill you, arise and kill him first.”
Indeed, when Avraham’s nephew Lot is captured by the five kings (Bereishit 14), Avraham does not wait for G-d to perform miracles. He musters an army and saves Lot himself. And Yaakov battles all night, choosing to fight rather than rely on Hashem’s providence.
nd yet, this is not so simple. Yosef is taken to task for what seems to be the same decision. Lost and seemingly forgotten in the dungeons of Egypt, he begs the butler to “remember me to Pharaoh and take me out of prison” (Bereishit 40:14). Rashi points out that Yosef remains two more years as punishment for relying on an Egyptian butler instead of on G-d, as the verse suggests in Tehillim (40:5): “Blessed is the man that places his trust in G-d, and looks not to the proud, and those who turn to falsehood.”
But to complicate things further, Yosef made clear when interpreting the dreams, not only of the butler and the baker, but even of Pharaoh, that it is Hashem who has the answers.
So how indeed are we to find this ever-elusive balance, trusting in G-d on the one hand, and yet being active partners in building a better world on the other?
Perhaps hidden in this week’s portion is an answer.
Why does the metzorah go to the kohen for resolution? If the question is one of spiritual pollution, what need is there of the kohen to intervene?
The kohen, it seems, represents that bridge between Divine providence and human intervention. That same need for finding the balance between what we need to do, and what Hashem is willing to do for us.
You see, when a person is discovered to have tzara’at, he must remove himself from society, sequestering himself for seven days, until the kohen returns to see if the tzara’at has abated. During this time he is considered tameh, ritually impure.
On the one hand, it is the kohen who recognizes the affliction and enjoins the individual to repent. Yet the kohen is completely dependent on Hashem who, based on the heart of the individual, causes the tzara’at to abate in the interim.
And what are these seven days of impurity? They are a period of processing. It offers the mourner the opportunity to focus on his or her loss before gradually reentering a new world, which will never be quite the same.
We need to be willing to trust in Hashem that life will send us what we need, and we need as well to be partners with Hashem in making that happen. As the Vilna Gaon suggests, faith without hishtadlut is not really faith, it bespeaks arrogance; who says I have earned the right to have faith that Hashem will help me? On the other hand, the assumption that I can do it all stems from this very same arrogance.
Ultimately, once I have done my bit, then I have the right to believe that Hashem will do His.
Life sends us signals, but we don’t always listen.
Maybe during these seven days, a person who is off balance has the chance to lean towards the other extreme. Perhaps this very suggestion is meant to remind us to make this processing a part of our life.
Perhaps, like the metzorah, we need to take some time for introspection.
Wishing you a balanced, peaceful, and meaningful Shabbat Shalom.