“Modesty and Humility for All”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, we learn that the affliction of tzah’rah’aht, the disease we are told comes from “lashon hara,” speaking evil about others, can also afflict a person’s home.

In Leviticus 14:35, Scripture relates, “Oo’vah ah’sher lo ha’bah’yit, v’hee’geed lah’ko’hen lay’mohr: k’neh’gah nir’ah lee bah’bah’yit,” the homeowner shall come to the Kohen and declare: “It seems to me as if an affliction has appeared in the house.” The priest then instructs that the house be cleared of all furnishings (so that everything in the house not become contaminated), and the Kohen commences his inspection.

Depending upon the Kohen’s diagnosis, the house is either declared clean, unclean or quarantined for a seven day period. If the house is declared unclean immediately, or after a first or second quarantine period, the afflicted stones are removed. The house must then be scraped on the inside, the old stones are replaced with new stones, and the house is replastered.

The rabbis in the Talmud (Negaim 12:5) are struck by the initial language of the homeowner who says to the Kohen, “K’neh’gah nir’ah lee,” It seems to me as if an affliction has appeared in the house. Even if the homeowner is a great Torah scholar who clearly recognizes the affliction, he may not render judgment by stating definitely, “An affliction has appeared to me.” Rather, he must always say, “It seems to me as if an affliction has appeared in the house.”

The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1941) cites the Tosfot Yom Tov to Negaim 12:5, who records the Talmudic dictum (Brachot 19a), “Ahl yif’tach adam peh lah’satan,” that one should not speak of menacing things because they may cause evil to happen. Therefore, the homeowner should not render a pessimistic judgment, but rather hope for the best and avoid mentioning negative possibilities.

The Gur Aryeh (Rabbi Judah Loew, 1525-1609, Rabbi of Prague, leading scholar, mystic and philosopher, known as the Maharal) argues that the homeowner is not in a position to declare the infection unclean since it is not technically an affliction until the Kohen himself declares it to be so. Saying it is unclean before the priest announces it as such has a taint of falsehood.

The Mizrachi (Eliyahu Mizrachi, 1440-1525, renowned Talmudist, mathematician and astronomer, Chief Rabbi of Turkey) suggests that one should train oneself to recognize the limitations of one’s knowledge, even in a situation where one feels certain. Similarly, the Rambam (Maimonidies,1135-1204, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician), cited by the Torah Temimah, suggests that one should develop the habit of speaking modestly, saying, “I am not sure.” The Torah Temimah also notes an alternate approach recorded in the Talmud Horayot 10, suggesting that the infections in the home, at times, turned out to be a blessing, since on occasion, when the homeowners removed the stones or tore down the walls they found hidden treasures that had been left there by the Canaanites who had fled the land.

The rabbinic advice cited by the Mishneh in Negaim that warns even experts not to diagnose infections with absolute certainty, reminds me of a story that has been of great help to me especially when dealing with seemingly haughty medical professionals, but probably applies to all arrogant “experts.”

Our friends’ six month old daughter, Rebecca, had been diagnosed with cancer of the aorta. In desperation, the parents immediately consulted with doctors at a world renowned hospital that is considered to be on the cutting edge of cancer treatment. The doctors unfortunately held out little hope for the child, saying that there was only one treatment that could be administered and that the likelihood of its success was less than ten percent.

Despite being jolted by the prognosis, the child’s parents refused to give up hope. Being people of considerable means and resources, they hired a medical researcher to explore whether there was a medical facility anywhere in the world that had ever treated this condition with greater success. The researcher located one remote protocol from France that claimed a fifteen percent success rate for treating this malignancy.

The child’s parents returned to the world renowned cancer facility to share this information. The doctors were completely dismissive, and stated that under no circumstances would they administer the French treatment. When the parents suggested that they would seek other hospitals that may be more amenable, the doctors threatened to use their influence to block any American hospital that would agree to help.

The parents eventually located a small Catholic hospital in Chicago that performed the experimental procedure on another child, but it did not succeed. Our friends’ child was the second or third patient to receive the treatment. Thank G-d, the child is alive and well some 28 years later. Fortunately, in the interim, many other children’s lives were saved through this procedure, which, for a while, became the standard treatment for this malady.

The story of Rebecca is always with me. I have shared it with many people and have often applied the lesson to my own and my family’s medical care. When I don’t feel comfortable with a medical professional, I seek other opinions. When I sense a cockiness or haughtiness among medical practitioners or other “experts,” I become wary. If Maimonidies, who was the greatest medical practitioner of his time, was able to write that a person should train his tongue to say, “I do not know” or, “I am not certain,” it must be taken seriously.

How much wisdom there is in the homeowner’s simple four word statement cited in the Torah, “K’neh’gah nir’ah lee bah’bah’yit.” It seems to me as if there is an affliction in the house.

May you be blessed.