זאת תהיה תורת המצרע ביום טהרתו
This shall be the law of the leper
In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2) it states:
This verse is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 34:13-15): “מי האישׁ החפץ חיים אהב ימים לראות טוב נצר לשונך מרע ושפתיך מדבר מרמה. סור מרע ועשה-טוב בקש שלום ורדפהו” (Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it). The verse may be compared to the incident when a peddler who used to visit towns in the vicinity of Sepphoris, crying out: “מאן בעי סם החיים?” (Who wants to buy an elixir of life?) Sitting in his room while reading the Scriptures intently, R. Jannai, hearing the peddler’s call, called to the peddler, “please come here and sell it to me.” The peddler replied, “Neither you nor people like you require what I have.” But R. Jannai insisted, so the peddler went to him, took out a book of Pslams, and showed him this passage (34:13-15): “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” which is followed immediately by: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit; depart from evil and do good.” R. Jannai said: “All my life have I been reading this passage, but did not know how explain it until this peddler came and clarified it for me: ‘Who is the man who desires life…? Keep your tongue from evil . . .’ That is why Moses, warning the Israelites told them: ‘This shall be the law of the מצרע (leper)’ i.e. the law relating to one that gives currency to an evil report (מוציא [שם] רע).”
The obvious question is: what did R. Jannai not understand about this verse, and what did he learn that he did not know before when the peddler showed him the verse? Many others have already discussed the verse, but our master offered his own original explanation.
What is very obscure about this verse is that it begins by offering life to anyone who desires it at a minimal price: “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” This seems like a trivial thing with which to gain a long and good life, but the Scripture then seems to take back the bargain by adding: “Depart from evil.” In other words, one must not violate any of the negative commandments of the Torah. And then a further requirement is added: “and do good.” In other words, one must perform all the positive commandments of the Torah not just observe all the negative commandments. But if one can gain life only by fulfilling the entire Torah, then why did the Scripture at first mention only the commandment to guard one’s tongue from evil?
However, the “life” to which the verse is referring is to avoid becoming a leper (מצרע) inasmuch as a leper is considered to be like a dead person. The point of the verse is thus to admonish against the sin of slander for which one is punished with leprosy, as is suggested by the word “מצרע” which is an abbreviation of “מוציא [שם] רע”. The verse is therefore providing advice about how to avoid sin of slander, and it does so in the light of another Midrash which says that speaking ill about a person causes the death of three people: the one who slanders, the one who listens to the slander, and the one who is slandered, because of some action of his that was the cause of others to speak ill about him. This is what the Psalmist was referring to when he asked “who is the man who desires life?” That is, who wants to avoid being stricken with leprosy? “Keep your tongue from evil.” This is the general principle, which is followed by specific details. “And your lips from speaking deceit” means “do not slander another person.” “Depart from evil” means “distance yourself from those who slander others and do not care what they say about others.” However, one has not yet secured his life against the possibility of punishment. For one must also “do good” by doing what is right and just in the eyes of God and man (הישר והטוב בעיני אלקים ואדם), so as not to give sinners a pretext for slandering him.
When this peddler shouted his announcement “who wants to buy an elixir of life?” and then took out a book of Psalms from his pocket, showing the verse to R. Jannai, he taught R. Jannai that the verse is only an antidote for the affliction of leprosy. For the business of peddlers is to sell antidotes and treatments to those afflicted with, or who seek to avoid, illness. That is how R. Jannai understood that the entire verse refers only to the sin of slander, thereby resolving all the difficulties that previously had troubled him. (שביבי אש)
וצוה הכהן ולקח למטהר שתי צפרים חיות טהרות
Then shall the priest command to take for him who is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean
Rashi comments: “Because the plagues of leprosy come as punishment for slander, which is the result of chattering, birds (צפרים), which chatter continuously with a twittering sound, are required to purify the leper.” Similary, concerning cedar wood (עץ ארז), Rashi comments: “this lofty tree was used, because plagues come as punishment for haughtiness. And concerning scarlet and hyssop (ושני תולעת ואזב), Rashi comments: “what remedy should he use to be healed? Let him, abandoning his pride, regard himself as a worm (תולעת) and as hyssop (אזב).”
Now, concerning these symbolic hints, one could ask why a single bird did not suffice to symbolize chattering and why one had to be slaughtered and the other let go into the open field. Moreover, the symbolic comparison of the cedar to haughtiness and the symbolic comparison of the worm and the hyssop to meekness seem contrary to the symbolic interpretation given to the two birds, the birds indicating how the leper committed his sin, while the cedar and the worm and the hyssop indicate both the sin and the sin must be repaired.
Our master therefore explained that, to reconcile the metaphorical hints, one must recall that speaking slanderously exhibits great haughtiness, as if to say “אני ואפסי עוד” (I and only), identifying the defects of all but himself, mocking and assigning blame others right and left. Although haughtiness is an evil affliction and a familiar ailment, the extremely humble and meek person, shutting his eyes so as not to see the evil done by his neighbor, and refusing to rebuke and cause him to abandon his transgressions, does not conduct himself properly, either. Instead of standing in the breach to do battle for God against the destroyers of the faith, he hides himself away.
This is why the Sages (Hulin 89a) interpret the verse (Psalms 58:2) “האמנם אלם צדק תדברון מישרים תשפטו בני אדם” (Indeed in silence speak righteousness; judge uprightly the sons of men) as follows: “What should be the pursuit of man in this world? He should be silent. If so, then perhaps he should also be silent even concerning the words of the Torah? That is why the verse says therefore, “צדק תדברון” (speak righteousness).
If it is indeed best for one to be mute without opening one’s mouth to argue with others to criticize them, one must nevertheless “speak righteousness” in a mighty voice and reprove the misdeeds and injustices of others for the sake of righteousness and fairness, so that others will repent of their misconduct. The leper is one who is haughty and arrogant, speaking freely and erroneously. So, if we want to offer an individual advice about how to improve his conduct, we must first instruct him to become modest and humble and give up his conceit. But, at the same time, we must also teach him that he should not go to the other extreme of excessive meekness. For there is a time for everything — a time to boldly confront those who do evil, when one must raise himself up for God’s sake to fight with an outstretched arm.
That is the symbolism of the two birds. One bird must be slaughtered to show that the leper must extinguish that propensity to speak which leads to sin. However, the bird sent out over the open field is meant to show that, at the appropriate time, one must be outspoken, raising his voice to speak out for the Eternal’s sake. And there is a similar symbolism in the cedar tree and the hyssop and worm, for sometimes one must raise himself up as high as a cedar to do battle, but at other times one must lower his soul as low as a hyssop and a worm. (שביבי אש)