This week we will learn about the power of a moment. A metzora is one who contracted a skin condition called Tzaraas in biblical times. This condition is often confused with leprosy because the metzora was quarantined, but this was not a medical condition. These lesions appeared when a Jew committed a sin, and it was G-d’s way of reminding us to repent.
The metzora was quarantined for no less than seven and no more than twenty-one days. When his condition would clear, his purification process would begin. “This is the Torah of the metzora on the day of his purification. He shall be brought to the priest. The priest should then exit the camp and observe that the lesions on the metzora’s skin have healed.”
This verse is problematic for several reasons. (A) If he was brought to the priest, why did the priest need to exit the camp? (B) If he needed to be quarantined until he had healed, who could bring him to the priest before his healing had been observed? (C). Every step in this process was conducted by a priest, why did the priest play such a critical role in this process?
Jewish mystics taught that when the Torah speaks of the priest in this context it refers to G-d. This doesn’t change the literal meaning of the word; it adds to it. The physical priest was needed to be there because he represented G-d in the process. Why is G-d a necessary part of the metzora’s healing process? Since tzaraas was a symptom of sin., the healing process entailed returning to G-d. Since each step in the physical process represented a stage in the metzora’s repentance, the priest’s presence was, therefore, critical at every step.
In this context, we can understand the meaning of “he should be brought.” The Hebrew word for is vehuva. Our sages divided vehuva into two words, vehu va—and he shall come. Indeed, say our sages, no one brought the metzora to the priest, he had to bring himself.
Let’s consider this in the context of repentance. The metzora was barred from all interaction with Jews. He was barred from the Priestly quarters in the Temple, from the Levitic quarters, and from all the Israelite communities. Without support from fellow Jews, he seemed cut off. No one could help him. No one could inspire him. No one could help him advance.
Yet, we say vehu va—if he insists, he can bring himself. He has a perfect excuse for not repenting, but he has no excuse for using his excuse. Another way of putting it, the very thought that he is on his own, the crushing loneliness of his condition, drives him to do all that he can to bring himself back. On his own, vehu va—he comes.
A Dual Meaning
The simple meaning of vehuva is he shall be brought, which prompts our sages to impose the artificial translation vehu va. Why didn’t the Torah just say uva, which means he shall come?
The answer is twofold: (A) by adding vehu the Torah emphasizes that he is on his own and that this is his impetus for pulling himself together. (B) We might suggest that Vehuva should be translated literally—he is brought. Who brings him if he is in quarantine? G-d brings him. The Torah’s message here is that no matter how isolated we might be, we are never completely alone. We might be isolated from all human contact, but G-d is never distant.
Vehuva—thus carries a double meaning. In terms of his relationship with his fellow, vehu va—he comes on his own. He is so completely alone that his very loneliness inspires him to break away and repent. In terms of his relationship with G-d, vehuva—he is brought. G-d didn’t abandon him. When we need G-d most, when we feel completely alone, G-d is there to carry us.
To us it feels like we pulled ourselves together with no external help. The truth is that G-d was with us every step of the way. He didn’t make His presence felt, He left us to imagine that we were on our own so that we would summon every last ounce of strength, but He was in fact there.
This explains why the priest would come out of the city after the metzora was brought to him. In the context of our thesis, it means that once the metzora makes a herculean effort, once he did all that he could, G-d did the rest. As our sages put it, “Open up for me like a needlepoint, and I will open for you like the doors to a ballroom.” Our sages also said, “when we sanctify ourselves a little bit from below, G-d sanctifies us exceedingly from above.”
Once we do our part, G-d does His. The key is that we do our part with a complete heart. That we give it our all and hold nothing back. No matter how much or how little we do, so long as we give it our all, G-d does the rest. No matter how much we achieve, G-d’s gift will be infinitely greater. Therefore, the size of our gift is less relevant than the measure of the heart with which it is given.
Jewish law stipulates that if a wicked man betroths a woman on the condition that he is perfectly righteous, they are betrothed out of doubt. This is so even if the man proceeds to commit sins and live a life of debauchery after the proposal. Why? Because he might have experienced a moment of repentance and if it was sincere, he was righteous in that moment. He was a sinner before and a sinner after, but in the moment, he was righteous.
No human court can decode the heart and determine whether his repentance was authentic. The fact that he recanted the next moment, casts his repentance into doubt for us. But G-d, only G-d, knows whether it was real. It takes only a moment to repent, but that moment must be sincere. In that moment, we must give it our all.
Thus, it is critical that the priest, who represented G-d, be present every step of the way. The priest couldn’t just be there at the beginning or at the end. He had to be there throughout because one never knew when the moment of repentance might occur. And when it happened, it had to be before G-d, who alone can gauge the measure of the Metzora’s heart.