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Toes and Thumbs

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

In Parshios Tazria and Metzora, in which we learned of the metzora - a person who contracts a specific type of skin disease, perhaps leprosy or psoriasis. As we shall see, this was visited upon him for a particular reason.

In Parshas Metzora, we learn of the purification procedure for the leper whose symptoms have vanished. The leper must bring three different offerings: a chatas (sin offering), an olah (burnt offering), and an asham (guilt offering). Let us note an interesting requirement of these offerings:

The kohen shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified, and on his right thumb and his right big toe. (Vayikra 14:14)

From the leftover oil which is in his hand, the kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified, and on his right thumb and his right big toe, on top of the blood of the asham. (Ibid., 17)


This law, of the application of blood and oil to the ear, thumb, and big toe of the owner of the offering, appears in only one other place: the investiture of the kohanim in Parshas Tetzaveh. We will consider the meaning that may lie behind it.

* * *


We have already discussed the great spiritual advantages possessed by the kohen. His focus in life is on the concealed, internal aspects of spiritual development. Although in comparison to the other nations of the world, klal Yisrael are very much focused away from the external trappings of life and toward the private aspects of existence, the kohanim are even more directed toward this mind-set. One could say that if klal Yisrael are the world experts in this field, then the kohanim are the experts among the experts.

The induction ceremony for the kohanim, which is described in Parshas Tetzaveh, elevated them above the rest of klal Yisrael for all time. Until then, the kohanim had been much like the other members of the nation. But when God singled them out to perform His service in the Mishkan, they were in some way recreated with that function in mind. The ceremony that was required had to reflect this fact. The essential difference between the kohanim and the rest of klal Yisrael was, as we have seen, that the focus of the kohanim was more inward. As such, the service performed to make them into functioning kohanim needed to imbue them with their new nature.

In physical terms, the hands and feet are furthest from the center of the body; they receive blood only after all the other parts of the body. In symbolic terms, they are also the most distant spiritually from the aims of the person, the most external in our context and the least imbued with the private nature that the kohen must personify. The extremities are, after all, the most visible to the outside world. Additionally, we find support for the idea that the ear is in some way more physical than the rest of the body in the following Chazal:

One should not allow one's ears to hear wasted words, because it is the most easily "scalded" of all the limbs. (Kesubos 5b)

The ear is the most easily affected by bad influences from outside. We may suggest that this is because it is the furthest from the body and the least influenced by it. Also, let us note that the ear is the only part of the body which one cannot move. At a mystical level, each part of the body has the ability to move due to the life force behind it - the part of the soul responsible for it. The ear, which cannot move independently of the head, is perhaps devoid of this life force.

We now understand why the inauguration of the kohanim necessitated wiping the blood of the offering on their thumbs, big toes, and ears. For it was these parts of the body, more than any other, which needed to be sanctified for the holy task which the kohanim were to do. This ritual included all of the kohen's person in the dedication to God's service, particularly emphasizing the new nature he was assuming.

* * *


We now return to the leper discussed in the Torah portion. As a result of speaking lashon hara, the leper was banished from klal Yisrael, living outside the settlement:

All the days in which the blight is upon him, he is impure; he shall live alone. Outside the camp shall be his dwelling. (Vayikra 13:46)

Why is the leper so different [from other sinners] that the Torah says, He shall live alone, outside the camp shall be his dwelling? He caused dissent between man and wife and between friends. Therefore the Torah says, He shall live alone. (Arachin 16b)

Indeed, the leper has to live outside the wall of the encampment or city, indicating that he has lost his precious private nature and become an external, superficial person. In fact, the lashon hara he spoke indicates that he cannot keep things private, but must spew them out, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate. In some way he has left his inwardly seeking Jewish personality behind, and so he has to live away from other Jews, outside the town.

Then, at some later time, the leper repents of his sin, and his ailment heals sufficiently to enable him to rejoin society. He must go through a procedure which will re-acclimatize him to living among klal Yisrael, a private people. He must learn to be a privately focused person once more. His situation is like that of the kohen at his inauguration ceremony, who must learn to exemplify this holy trait. So, like the kohen, the leper also needs to have the blood of rehabilitation offerings smeared on his right thumb, right big toe, and right ear. This will indelibly indicate to him that he must leave behind his externally focused life and concentrate on doing his job as a Yisrael instead.

This means that the ideal kohen and the leper express opposite character traits: the former is an inwardly looking person, the latter, a superficial, outwardly looking person. This is verified by the following Chazal:

God said to Moshe, "Say to your brother, Aharon, 'I have done great chesed on your behalf, and I have apportioned great honor to you, that your sons were burned. I placed them inside every partition, even closer to Me than Moshe, your brother. How was this so? Yisrael encompassed the Levi'im [Moshe was a Levi], and they camped around the Mishkan. So we find that Aharon and his sons were inside, while Moshe was outside... Anyone who enters the Mishkan without permission becomes leprous. Is this what you wanted, that your sons should be lepers? That those who were positioned inside every partition, should have to sit alone outside all of the partitions?' " ...Once Aharon heard this, he said, "I agree before You that what You did for me was good for me. It was an act of chesed that You did for me that they died and did not remain alive as lepers..." (Pesikta Rabbasi 47:3)

This supports all that we have said until now, that the main characteristic of the kohen is to be private (they merit to be placed in the most internal and holiest part of the camp) and that the leper is just the opposite.

* * *


This will help us to understand why it is that the metzora has both his diagnosis and his recovery directed by the kohen. When he suspects that he has contracted the illness, he must go to a kohen for an examination. Even the greatest Torah scholar cannot diagnose the condition without the pronouncement of a kohen. Likewise, the whole procedure of his atonement and rehabilitation is conducted by the kohen. If, as we have seen, the kohen is the paradigm of what the leper has failed to be, then only he can correctly see a failing in another of which the leprosy is a symptom. Likewise, only the kohen can objectively detect when the leper has repented and has sufficiently recovered his private nature to be allowed to rejoin the rest of society. The root problem of the leper is his failure to be adequately private in focus. It takes a master of this middah to banish him and then to help him return to full Jewish life once more.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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