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The Measure of Distinction

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

The affliction of tzaraas is not caused by a microbe or by impurities in the water supply. The Talmud tells us (Arachin 16a) that it is caused by any of seven sins. The most famous of these is lashon hara, improper speech, he was afflicted with tzaraas as a not very subtle message from Heaven that he had better shape up and watch his mouth. Such a person would have to seek the assistance of a Kohein who would hopefully help him mend his erroneous ways.

Rav Nissan Alpert observed that the word the Torah uses here for a person is adam, which generally denotes a person of greater stature and distinction than does the word ish. It seems peculiar that when discussing a person who speaks lashon hara, the Torah would use language that denotes a person of distinction.

Clearly, the measure of a person that determines whether or not he has stature or distinction is not if he speaks lashon hara. Unfortunately, most people fall into the trap of doing so. The opportunities and the snares are so many that it is almost impossible to avoid it altogether without a tremendous focused effort. The measure is rather how a person deals with it. A person of distinction is mortified that he has spoken lashon hara. He wants to improve himself, to fortify himself against any recurrence of such a thing. A smaller person rationalizes or shuts it out of his mind altogether.

A distinguished person can stumble and inadvertently speak lashon hara, but as long as he demonstrates a desire to change and improve he can still be considered distinguished. He has to make the effort. The Torah says that “he shall be brought to the Kohein.” The language implies a measure of coercion. He has to force himself to go. He has to be ready to take his medicine. That is the measure of distinction.

One Chol Hamoed morning, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was sitting in his study with Rav David Finkel, one of his students. They were discussing various subjects when Rav Isser Zalman suddenly touched his forehead as if he had forgotten something.

“Could you please bring me a pencil and a piece of paper?” he asked.

Rav David was perplexed, since it is only permitted to write on Chol Hamoed in case of emergency. Perhaps it had momentarily slipped Rav Isser Zalman’s mind that it was Chol Hamoed. “Ahem,” he said, “isn’t it forbidden to write on Chol Hamoed?”

“This is different,” said Rav Isser Zalman. “It’s practically a matter of life and death.”

“Is something wrong, Rebbi?” Rav David cried out. “Is something going on? What can I do to help?”

Rav Isser Zalman shook his head. “You can bring a pencil and paper.”

Rav David hurried off and returned momentarily with a paper and pencil. He gave them to Rav Isser Zalman and stood back, trembling with apprehension.

To his amazement, Rav Isser Zalman wrote out a quotation from Mishlei (4:25), “Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids will straighten your path.” Then he put down the pencil.

“That’s it, Rebbi?” asked Rav David. “That’s practically a matter of life and death? To write down a few words from Mishlei that you already know by heart?”

“In a certain way,” said Rav Isser Zalman, “this is very much a matter of life and death. For me, that is.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rav David.

“I will explain it to you. On Chol Hamoed, hundreds of people here in Yerushalayim come to pay me a visit. Among them are many fine and respectable people, Torah scholars, pious Jews, friends and relatives. But there are also plenty of the less-distinguished residents of Yerushalayim. For some reason, it has become like a ‘thing to do’ on Chol Hamoed. Go visit the Meltzer house.”

He paused for a sip of water.

“If you stay here for a while, you will see the type of people that come visit me on Chol Hamoed, braggarts, nasty people, lunatics, derelicts, fools, and I have to welcome all these people with patience and kindness. I have to sit here patiently and listen to all of them and smile. Sometimes, I feel my patience being tried sorely. I am tempted to lash out at them with a few well-chosen sharp words. I have to hold myself back. I have to control myself, but I am afraid I will make a mistake and say something I shouldn’t say. So I’ve worked out a system for myself. I write down this verse from Mishlei. Here, take a look at it.”

Rav David read it and returned it.

“I once heard a homiletic interpretation,” continued Rav Isser Zalman, “that reads it as saying, ‘When your eyes look at someone else, turn them inward.’ When you see someone else’s flaws and shortcomings, don’t focus on him. Focus on yourself. Look at your own shortcomings. You are also far from perfect. This is what I think about at those moments when I am close to losing control. If I wouldn’t have the paper there on my desk, staring me in the face, I am afraid I would just lash out. But then I see the paper, and it stops me. I always write this paper out before Yom Tov, so that it should already be prepared for Chol Hamoed. This year, I forgot. That is why I have to write it now. Otherwise, I would be in trouble.”

Rav Isser Zalman was a very great man, and he knew that keeping away from all forms of lashon hara is a struggle. He worked hard to avoid criticizing others and looking at their faults. He felt it was practically a matter of life and death.

There are only two types of people in the world, those who view the glass as half empty and those who view the glass as half full. Those who speak lashon hara always view the glass as half empty; they only see the faults of others, not their virtues. Those who look away from the faults of others take a more positive view of the world; they see the glass as half full. In the long run, these people are the happiest. They see the positive in their spouses, their children and their surroundings. But one who speaks lashon hara is miserable in the end, because it makes him into a negative and destructive person. As destructive as he is to others, he is most destructive to himself.

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