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Know Your Limitations

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

Regarding tzaraas spots found on the walls of one's house, the Torah emphasizes that one must tell the kohein that he found a spot that looks like tzaraas: “And the one to whom the house belongs will come, and he will tell the kohein [by] saying, ‘[something] like a negah has appeared to me in the house’(14:35).” Rashi elaborates that even if the home-owner is a Talmid Chacham and knows with certainty that the spot is indeed tzaraas, he may not declare that he found tzaraas in his house; rather he must say that he found something that looks like a tzaraas-spot.

At first glance, it would seem that the lesson here is one of humility. He must not presume that he knows the law with certainty; rather he must humbly say that it looks like it is tzaraas.

But, if that is the case, doesn't it seem like false humility?  If the homeowner is indeed a Talmid Chacham to whom other questions of halacha that span the entire Torah gamut are constantly addressed, why would it smack of arrogance for him to say that it is definitely tzaraas? Furthermore, why is this lesson of humility for the Talmid Chacham being taught here? Isn't it a general idea that would be more appropriate in the section of the Torah that teaches us about the authority of the Chachamim and instructs them in how to pasken1?

Chazal revealed that the main cause of the affliction of tzaraas is lashon hara2.  What brings one to speak lashon hara?

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that if a situation arises whereby one could judge one's fellow favorably and he instead assumes guilt - and as a result of which speaks negatively of that person - he has thus violated the prohibition of lashon hara3.  Although this is but one example of a violation of the prohibition of lashon hara, we can nevertheless cull from here that judging one's fellow unfavorably is one of the root causes of slander, if not its principal cause.

Chazal teach us, "Do not judge your fellow until you reach his place (Avos 2:5)."  We are also taught that (in general) a judge should not judge a court case by himself, "for there is only One Who judges alone (Avos 4:10).”

When we see another person doing something, we do not know the myriad details which lie behind his action.  Every person is an entire world of thoughts, emotions, life circumstances, life experiences, difficulties, intellect, level of wisdom and understanding.  Therefore, it is quite presumptuous indeed for one to jump to a negative conclusion about something they really don’t know too much about. 

Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.

True, the homeowner may be a knowledgeable scholar who knows the law with complete clarity.  Nevertheless, if he attempts to make a pronouncement that the spot is tzaraas, he is presuming to assume a role that is not his.

The Torah states very clearly that only a kohein is authorized to pronounce whether the spot is pure or impure; nobody else can.  So, with all of his knowledge and understanding, this Talmid Chacham must still know his place, his limitations4

This point is a crucial lesson in order to avoid lashon hara:  No matter how intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise you may be – you must nevertheless recognize your limitations. Do not jump to judge your fellow negatively - know your limitations, know your boundaries.  Do not presume to be a lone judge, for there is only One Who judges alone. Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place – and realize that that place is so multidimensional and complex that the chance that you have or ever will reach it is practically nil.

Of course, just as there are unique or extenuating circumstances that would permit or require a dayan to deal with a court case by himself, so too there are situations where a person may be permitted, or perhaps even required to clearly define the actions of his fellow as completely wrong. The Chafetz Chaim discusses the particulars of these halachos at length. The central point, though, that we need to absorb, is that to approach such matters from a presumptuous, arrogant stance is wrong and will inevitably lead one to violating the prohibitions (even though, in his arrogance, he is convinced of the truth and justice of his assertion). Rather, one's outlook must be exceedingly humble, and with that approach one will certainly be able to find ways to judge others favorably, or at the very least think of mitigating factors that greatly lessen the negative impression of the subject. And this, in turn, will greatly assist us in avoiding the terrible sin of lashon hara.


1. For example, in parshas Shoftim (“k’chol asher yorucha”, “lo sateh mishpat”, etc.)

2. See Rashi in parshas Tazriah, 13:46.

3. כלל ג' סעיף ז'

4. This point, of course, is between the Talmid Chacham and Hashem. Chas v’Shalom for one to think for even one moment that based on this he can ever contradict his Rav with the justification, “In this matter I know better, and the Rabbi should stick to Rabbi stuff and not mix in where he is not knowledgeable.” Such an attitude is completely out of line and is even borderline apikorsus! See Koveitz Igros of the Chazon Ish, volume three, letter 92.

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