from the heart of jerusalem

We are more than our mistakes


Is there a point when a person can no longer change?

On the one hand, Jewish law teaches that for some transgressions, such as murder, a person is put to death, suggesting that such a person can no longer redeem him or herself in this world.

On the other hand, our tradition also teaches us in the name of Rabbi Eliezer (Avot 2:10) to “repent the day before you die.” In the Talmud (Shabbat 153), he explains this to mean that a person should always repent, as he never knows when he might die. The clear implication is that everyone can repent.

Rav Ephraim Oshry, one of the last rabbis of the Kovno ghetto, shares a powerful responsum from the Holocaust in his sefer Mima’amakim. A fellow came over to him in the DP camp, after the war, with an intense question. He had been a chazan before the war, and some of his fellow former inmates wanted him to lead the services for Rosh Hashanah. But he had been appointed a kapo by the Nazis and had had to do terrible things. He was unsure if he could or should lead the services.

Rav Oshry asked some of the former Jewish prisoners why they wanted him to lead the services. They replied that he had done many more good deeds than bad and had saved lives, and they longed to hear the haunting melodies of the Days of Awe from a chazan who could call up the power of prayer from before the war….

Should such a person — who may have saved some, but certainly had harmed others — be allowed to lead the services? Who could determine if he had repented? Can one ever really repent from such actions?

There is a fascinating detail worth noting in this week’s portion of Metzora. The portion continues to expound on the laws of ritual impurity and opens with the case of the metzora, a person afflicted with the spiritual skin malady of tzara’at.

Interestingly, although the topic is discussed quite extensively in last week’s portion of Tazria, only now is the person afflicted named as a metzora; a person afflicted with tzara’at. Until now, the Torah has defined the conditions for tzara’at, discussed the process whereby a kohen identifies it and declares it as tzara’at, without actually defining him as a metzora. Only now do we find the person named.

Even more interesting is that the person is only described as a metzora on the day he becomes purified (Vayikra 14:2).

This is rarer than one might think: a person in the Torah is not usually defined by their impurity. As an example, a woman experiencing her monthly menstrual flow, thus rendered impure, is described as “b’niddata” (ibid 15:19-20) literally, in her flow. A man with a seminal emission, also rendered impure, is described not as a ba’al keri, but rather as “teitzeh mimenu shichvat zera,” literally, he from whom a seminal emission flows.

 In other words, the Torah does not allow the impurity to define the person, but rather simply describes a process or state a person is experiencing. 

How easy it is for us to see a characteristic and presume it as the totality of the person. We live in an age that loves to label. So people are black or white, left or right, charedim or Reform, liberal or conservative. We see people as blind or deaf, learning disabled or with special needs.

But these labels do not define the person, they merely describe a small part of them. 

A fascinating example of this is occurring during Israel’s current election season. It has been fascinating to watch the media struggle to define Zehut leader, Moshe Feiglin, who has always been defined as a traditional hard-right politician, and yet whose platform supports legalizing cannabis. His being religious should, in our stereotype-happy perception, mean he is against cannabis. But it is not so easy to explain why that should be.

It should be so obvious that a person’s skin color is only a small part of who they are. It should be equally obvious that a person’s cultural background is only a very small part of their potential skill set, intelligence, success or failure.

Perhaps we use these labels because they are easier. After all, we could just as easily label people as blue, brown, or green-eyed as we do white or black. In fact, Jewish tradition does this as well; though the Torah does not call a women a niddah or a man a ba’al keri, the Mishnah clearly does, maybe because it makes the conversation too laborious to have to explain them in truer fashion. But the Torah is clearly suggesting and perhaps we are meant to infer, that such labeling is problematic. 

Indeed, Jewish tradition wants us to differentiate between the person, and their actions. A great example of this appears in Pirkei Avot (1:6-7) in the teachings of Rabbis Yehoshua ben Perachia and Nitai Ha’Arbeli. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia says we should judge every person meritoriously; always assume the best about every person. Nitai Ha’Arbeli says we should distance ourselves from a wicked neighbor. But if we are meant to assume the best about everyone, how would one ever have a wicked neighbor?

Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that we should not judge the person; we should only judge their actions. An action can be wicked, but who are we to determine the totality of a person as wicked? Only G-d can make such judgments. By labeling the person’s actions as impure, rather than defining them, we learn to be more careful in labeling people.

Which returns to our original question: why here, on the day he becomes purified, is the person struggling to leave his tzara’at behind labeled and defined as a metzora

There are two types of instances in which a person becomes tameh, impure. In one type of event, an external factor renders a person impure, but the source of impurity is external to themselves. The best example of this is, of course, contact with death. A person who comes in contact with a dead body becomes impure, but the impurity came from an external source. 

Here, in our portion of Metzora, we are dealing with impurity contracted from within one’s own body. The ultimate example of becoming impure from the inside out is the metzora. The Talmud (Erchin 16a) lists the seven transgressions for which a person would be afflicted with tzara’at, the greatest of which seems to be slander. This is by definition a transgression that comes closest to changing who a person is.

And maybe the reason the Torah labels such a person a metzora as he is purified is to remind us that such behavior, which stems from something warped and imbalanced deep inside, does not simply leave when the person repents. It leaves a residue that is much harder to erase.

In the DP camp, Rav Oshry ruled that the chazan in question, despite having been a kapo, could, under the circumstances, lead Rosh Hashanah prayers. Being a kapo was something he did, but he had the capacity to decide that it would not be who he was — as do we all.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.