“Bows and Arrows” Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5780

The parshiot of Tazria and Metzora are devoted predominantly to the laws of tzara’at, a condition often mistranslated as “leprosy”. Tzara’at is a fungal-like disorder that manifests itself upon a surface: a person’s skin, his utensils, his clothing, and even the walls of his home. According to the Talmud in Tractate Arachin [15b], tzara’at is actually a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise. A person is typically stricken with tzara’at as a punishment for any one of a number of sins, the most predominant one being slander (lashon hara). This week, we will try to gain some insight into the metaphysics – and the physics – of slander.

Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, better known as the “Maggid (Preacher) of Dubno”, who lived in Lithuania in the second half of the eighteenth century, offers an explanation[1] to a verse in which the prophet Jeremiah bemoans the sinfulness of the population of Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction by the Babylonians [Jeremiah 9:7]: “Their tongue is a sharpened arrow, they use their mouths to deceive. One speaks to his fellow in friendship but lays an ambush for him in his heart.” The Maggid explains the sharpened arrow metaphor via the physical mechanism by which a bow and arrow operate: A string is attached to both ends of a flexible bow and the shaft of an arrow is mated to the string. When the string is pulled away from the bow, the bow deforms. When the string is released, the bow snaps back to its original shape, returning the string and the arrow to their initial location with a great amount of force. The arrow separates from the bow and flies off to its target. A bow and arrow can be simply modeled by a mass attached to a spring. Every spring is characterized by a “spring coefficient” usually referred to as “k”. The larger the spring coefficient, the harder the spring is to stretch or to compress. The force required to depress or to extend the spring by a distance “x” is defined by Hooke’s Law[2] as: f = -k◦x. This force can be translated into potential energy using the following function: E = ½ k◦x2. In other words, as the bow is pulled back, its potential energy – the potential to fling an arrow – increases exponentially[3]. The Maggid explains that just like a person pulls back on the bow in order for the arrow to fly forward, in the very same way a person first complements another person before slandering him. “He is such a lovely person but…” And just like the farther a person pulls back on the bow, the farther the arrow will fly, in the very same way the more a person complements another person, the more he will end up slandering him. “He is such a wonderful Prime Minister who has handled the coronavirus pandemic brilliantly but…” Precisely for this reason, the Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [164b] teaches “A person should never speak the praises of another, as out of the praise spoken about him someone may come to speak to his detriment.”

I would like to modify the Maggid’s parable to make it more compatible with Hooke’s Law, but first a bit of background is necessary. In its description of the person who comes down with the symptoms of tzara’at, the Torah says [Vayikra 13:2] “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration…” The Torah uses the Hebrew word “adam” to describe the person with the rash, instead of the word “ish”, the word the Torah typically uses to refer to a generic person. Indeed, in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora, the word “ish” appears eleven times while the word “adam” appears only twice. Why, then, does the Torah begin its discussion of the laws of tzara’at with the word “adam”?

A similar example of the word “ish” being used instead of the word “adam” occurs at the beginning of the Book of Vayikra. The topic at hand is the introduction to sacrifices. The Torah states [Vayikra 1:2] “When a man (adam) from among you brings a sacrifice to G-d…” Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the second half of the eleventh century, notes that generally speaking, the word “ish” is translated as “a person” or “an individual” while the word “adam” is translated as “a human being”. He thus identifies the human (adam) offering the sacrifice as Adam, the first human. Rashi asks, “Why is this particular term for ‘man’ employed here? [The answer is that] just like the first man did not offer sacrifice of anything acquired by way of robbery, since everything was his, so you, too, shall not offer anything as a sacrifice acquired by way of robbery”. Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen Rabinowicz, who lived in Radomsk in the nineteenth century, offers a moving explanation in his “Tiferet Shlomo”: There is nothing more holy in Judaism than a sacrifice. A sacrifice can be offered only in the Temple (Beit HaMikdash) and only by a Kohen who is ritually pure. It can be consumed only by a person who is ritually pure and then only for a very short while. And yet, at the end of the day, the sacrifice is really nothing more than a cow or a sheep. How can a barnyard animal transcend its mundane existence and attain holiness? It requires nothing more than the words of its owner. As soon as the owner of the animal declares, “This animal is designated as a sacrifice”, the animal undergoes an irreversible metaphysical change. Here the Tiferet Shlomo reaches a crescendo: “If the words of a human being can cause a tectonic change in an animal, imagine what his words can do to his own existence. When a person uses his power of speech to learn Torah or to pray, then his own existence becomes no less holy than that of the sacrifice.” The power of speech separates human from beast. When G-d creates man, the Torah calls him [Bereishit 2:7] “a living soul”, translated by our Sages as “a speaking soul”. And so the Torah specifically calls the owner of the sacrifice “adam” – “human” – to stress that it is the human’s power of speech that enables the creation of a sacrifice.

With this explanation in hand, we can return to the person (adam) who contracts tzara’at. When introducing sacrifices, the Torah used the word “adam” to emphasize the power of human speech in turning the mundane into the holy. It uses the same word “adam” when it introduces the laws of tzara’at, to emphasize that the same power of speech can also be misused, turning the holy into the profane. What determines whether the power of speech is used for good or for evil? Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the “Chafetz Chaim”, who lived about one hundred years ago in Belarus, makes a logical progression: As a person who speaks slander belittles others, he more than likely considers himself a wise and important person. A person who recognized his own faults would not belittle other, possibly more worthy, people. The driving force behind slander is arrogance.

Now we finally have enough background to bring the parable of the Maggid more into line with Hooke’s Law. Before shooting an arrow, the archer pulls the arrow backwards. The Maggid compared this backwards motion with the archer’s compliment of the recipient that proceeds, and inevitably leads to, slander. I suggest that the physics – and the metaphysics – of slander have nothing to do with the target and everything to do with the archer. The archer is pulling the arrow back specifically toward himself. The farther he pulls back on the string, the closer the arrow comes to his body, and the farther it will fly. The physics and metaphysics of slander become crystal clear: The root of slander – the energy propelling the arrow – is the power of human speech. Speech, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil. It has potential for either. But when the person pulls back on the string toward himself , he misdirects the power of speech with his arrogance. The more arrogant the speaker is, the harder he pulls towards himself and the farther the resultant slander travels.

If slander is caused by arrogance, its reparation – its tikkun – can be leveraged only by humility. Humility has the power to redirect the arrow,  changing it from an instrument of destruction to an instrument of holiness, an instrument that transforms a person’s entire life into a sacrifice for the sake of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] This explanation can be found in a book called “Peninim miShulchan HaGra”, “Pearls from the Table of the Vilna Gaon”, a book given to me as a parting gift from my Rebbe and my teacher, Rabbi Silberman. While many children learn parables of the “Maggid of Dubno” at an early age, few of them know that the Maggid was a disciple of the Vilna Gaon.

[2] Robert Hooke was a British physicist who lived in the seventeenth century.

[3] Anyone who has experienced a pandemic should understand the concept of exponential growth.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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