“The Essential Ingredient for Repentance and Prayer–Humility”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Metzorah, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Tazria-Metzorah, we read of the process of purification for the person who was stricken with the disease Tzaraat. On previous occasions (Tazria 5763-2003), we have noted that Tzaraat is a dermatological disease, whose primary cause is spiritual contamination, presumably resulting from evil speech, Lashon Harah. Once the Kohen, the priest, diagnoses the disease as definitively Tzaraat, the diseased person is sent out of all three camps of Israel to live in seclusion for seven days. It is during this period that the stricken person is expected to reflect on the causes of his or her malady, begin the process of repentance and qualify to return to the community.

The ancient purification process consisted of three parts. The first was performed outside the camp with two live birds of kosher species, cedar wood, a crimson thread and a branch of hyssop.

In an elaborate ritual, one of the birds was slaughtered over an earthenware vessel containing spring water. The priest then took the cedar wood, the crimson thread and the hyssop, and dipped them and the live bird into the mixture of the water and the blood of the slaughtered bird. Then the priest sprinkled the person to be purified from the Tzaraat with the blood-water seven times, and set the live bird free in an open field. The Tzaraat- stricken person was then rendered partially purified and immersed his clothing in water. Although he may then reenter the camp, he must still dwell outside of his tent for seven days until the conclusion of the entire purification process.

The second stage of the purification involved shaving all of the stricken person’s body hair, including the head, beard, and eyebrows. On the seventh day, he immersed in water and became less contaminated, but not totally pure. The final stage of purification involves bringing a number of symbolic purification sacrifices.

The commentators explain that the healing of the stricken person is essentially a process of spiritual transformation. The person who is stricken with Tzaraat needs to be transformed from an arrogant person to one who is humble. After all, it was the moral flaw of arrogance that caused his misdeeds. Haughtiness, the underlying cause of slander and gossip, breeds contempt for others and causes one to talk about others callously. Without a resolute change from arrogance to humility, there can be no repentance.

Therefore, three highly symbolic items are included in this ritual: cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop. Cedar, one of the most imposing of all the trees, represents haughtiness. The crimson thread, made of white wool pigmented red with the blood of a worm, represents the lowest form of nature. Hyssop is a lowly bush, symbolizing again, humility.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) commenting on the verse in Leviticus 14:4 regarding taking cedar wood, the crimson thread and hyssop, notes that the person stricken with Tzaraat is repaired and healed by humbling himself, like a worm and a hyssop, from his arrogance.

The requirement of humility in order to achieve proper Teshuva, repentance, applies as well to the art of prayer. The Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim, 98:3, states that one must pray, “As an impoverished person begging at a door.” It is humble prayer that is likely to elicit a favorable response from Heaven. As a merciful person sees someone who is in terrible pain, and immediately has mercy upon him, so does the Al-mighty respond to proper prayer with Divine compassion.

When a haughty person positions himself before G-d in prayer as someone who lacks nothing, why should G-d have compassion upon him? However, a person who stations himself like a child before his father (Hosea 11:1), who is totally dependent upon the compassion of the father, will evoke a favorable response from G-d, like a merciful father upon his children.

A haughty person who does not recognize that everything is dependent upon G-d, will be unable to invoke such Heavenly compassion.

The imagery of a poor person begging at a door for a handout resonates with me strongly. When I first set out to launch the National Jewish Outreach Program, I had no experience as a fundraiser. I had determined that, for the National Jewish Outreach Program to be secure in the early years, significant start-up funds were needed.

In the months before we opened our doors, I went to many potential donors, whom I had met over the years, to ask for support. I remember that on one of my first fundraising forays, I brazenly asked the donor for one million dollars! I was under the impression that he had responded positively and that the funds would soon be forthcoming to NJOP. I felt pretty good about it. I was so naive that I failed to write a letter thanking him or even acknowledging the pledge. Six months later, when we opened our doors, I asked him to fulfill his one million dollar pledge. He politely declined, but did give NJOP a check for $10,000. I gladly took the funds, but it left me rather shaken. Fortunately, we had received other significant commitments, and were able to proceed with our original plans.

I vividly remember flying to Los Angeles to visit acquaintances there, hoping to solicit donations of five or ten thousand dollars. I failed to realize that without a car, Los Angeles was inaccessible. I walked from house to house, to people who had been recommended to me. I believe that the largest donation that I received was about five hundred dollars. Most of the checks were for $18 or $36. It was an extraordinarily humbling experience. To this day, I know well what it feels like to be a collector who goes from door to door. It is a lesson that I will always remember, and a humbling one at that.

As you may know, when reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of every service, one bows on four occasions: once at the beginning of the opening “Shield of Abraham” blessing, and once at its conclusion, once at the beginning of the blessing of Thanksgiving, and once at the conclusion. In ancient times, the High Priest would bow before every one of the eighteen blessings (there were only eighteen then). The king would bow at the beginning of the Amidah, and remain stooped over for the entire Amidah. All this is an indication that the greater the person, the more he must humble himself.

The lessons of the Metzorah are important lessons for us today, because we dare not allow our Teshuva and our prayers become robotic and mechanical, failing to acknowledge the importance of humbling ourselves. The rituals of Teshuva and prayer require much introspection. To invoke G-d’s compassion, we must recognize who we are, and be prepared to humble ourselves before the L-rd.

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel Memorial Day for fallen soldiers,  is observed this year on Tuesday night, April 24th, and all day Wednesday, April 25th.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Wednesday night, April 25th, and all day Thursday, April 26th, 2012.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Samayach!