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Deathly White or Purely White?

Tazria (Leviticus 12-13 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

The major topic of this parsha is tzaraas, the spiritual malady that manifests as spots on a person’s body, clothing, or home.

Regarding the spots that appear on the body, only certain, strong1 shades of white can potentially cause the individual to be pronounced tamei (spiritually impure) with tzaraas.

When Miriam was punished with tzaraas for having spoken lashon hara about Moshe, Aharon entreated Moshe to forgive them and he exclaimed, “Al nah tehi k’meis, Please let her not be like a corpse (Bamidbar 12:12).” Rashi explains that a metzora is like a corpse – just as a corpse causes everything in a room to become tamei, so too does a metzora.

Evidently, the white color of the tzaraas spots is associated with tumah and death.

On the other hand, we prayin the Selichos, “Whiten our sins like snow and like wool, as it is written2, ‘If your sins will be as scarlet, they will become white like snow, if they will be red like a worm, like wool will they be’.”

Similarly, the Kohein Gadol carries out the unique Yom Kippur service in the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim (the Holy of Holies) while clothed in white garments3.

So, it would seem that the color white is associated with purity and forgiveness, not death and impurity?

Rav Aharon Lopiansky explained that white is the color that indicates and is a manifestation of the weakening of the physical body. There are two completely different ways, though, how this can take place. One way is negative. The body is overcome with either physical or spiritual sickness and becomes weakened. The body’s loss of chiyus (life force/energy) – whether partial or absolute – is then manifest by the appearance of the color white. The healthy-looking complexion fades and is supplanted by a death-like, white color. When this happens, the white color is associated with death and tumah.

The other way the body becomes weakened is through positive means. Instead of drawing its energy from its own physical life-force, the body comes to be energized through the spiritual channels by way of the neshama (soul). Through the individual’s concerted and ongoing efforts, the neshama slowly but surely assumes control over the body, and the body then becomes subsumed into the life-force of the neshama. When this happens, the body can come to assume a pale, whitish complexion and seem frail and weak. This a manifestation of the gradual cutting off of the physical source of life.

Indeed, there have been many Gedolei Yisrael throughout the generations who have astounded those around them by their seemingly endless and indefatigable energy and stamina, all the while looking as if they have not an ounce of strength or energy in their pale, frail bodies. The reason for this seeming enigma is that they have refined their beings to the extent that their primary source of life – even for their physical body – is not the physical life-force but the life-force of the neshama. When this takes place, the color white is an expression of purity and closeness to Hashem. The individual’s ruchniyus is manifest and readily apparent even in and through his physical body4.

Obviously, not everyone will manage to reach such a lofty level, but it is nevertheless important to be aware of this concept for at least two main reasons. One reason is that this awareness enhances and deepens our appreciation for the kedusha of Torah and the Gedolei Torah. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, having this awareness aids a person in at least setting himself on the right path. “Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimenah, It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but, at the same time, you are not free to disengage from it (Avos 2:21).”

Although we cannot necessarily be expected to attain such very high levels of kedusha and tahara, we must nevertheless at least direct and conduct our lives in a manner that leads towards this goal, even if we may never wind up fully attaining it.

And, of course, as is the case with any מעלה (level) that we are trying to reach, it is not all or nothing. Even if we manage to achieve 10% or 1% or even .0001% of a given מעלה we will have accomplished something very worthwhile. So much so that we cannot even begin to fathom the true significance of what we have achieved. So, to whatever extent we manage to disconnect our body from its own physical life-force and draw life-force from the neshama instead, to that extent have we achieved greatness.

It is very important to emphasize that, for us, the manner of achieving this מעלה (or any other מעלה for that matter) is not by engaging in ascetic practices or the like5, but by simply and straightforwardly applying ourselves to learning Torah and kiyum ha’mitzvos in general. It is true that certain mitzvos more specifically cultivate certain, specific levels, and other mitzvos other levels. But the point of discussing any given מעלה is most definitely not in order to cause one to focus on any particular mitzvah at the expense of other mitzvos. Rather, the point of such discussion is to arouse a certain depth of awareness, focus, and appreciation within the already-existing framework of learning Torah and keeping mitzvos, so that the effect becomes more direct and potent. Additionally, this awareness helps to guard one from becoming ensnared (to whatever degree) in the mistaken emotional mindset of relating to the physical and material realm as being the main aspect of our existence6. Instead, it serves to keep a person emotionally focused on his learning Torah and doing mitzvos. And hopefully such proper formatting of one’s emotional outlook will translate into a concrete increase of commitment and consistent application to one’s learning Torah and doing mitzvos.


1. עיין רש"י יג:לט

2. ישעיה א:יח

3. See Rashi on Acharei Mos 16:4.

4. וכמו כן ביאר הרב לופיאנסקי הענין של הלבנת זקנו של ראב"ע כשרצו למנותו נשיא.

5. Such hanhagos may have been appropriate for certain individuals in generations past, but for us they are completely off the radar screen! See Karyanah D’Igresah where the Steipler Gaon expresses horror over the fact that a ben Torah was fasting to atone for an aveirah he had done, and emphatically states that nowadays we do not engage in such behaviors. Similarly, he writes (in the second volume) that all the מעלות of kedusha and tahara come about through assiduous application to learning Torah and that one should therefore focus only thereupon and not engage in any grandiose behaviors.

6. To the extent that one comes to incorporate this outlook into one’s consciousness and relate to the physical component of one’s existence as a levush and the spiritual as the primary aspect of one’s being, one will organically come to deal with the material realm accordingly.

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