May 25, 2024
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Being Aware of a Jew’s Call for Help

Last year, I took my good friend Rabbi David Sorani to Newark airport. As we entered the airport, we noticed a car with an interesting license plate. Instead of a mixture of letters and numbers, the license plate read, “SINNER.” My friend said we should ask the driver about the plate. We drove alongside the car and Rabbi Dave asked, “Sinner? Why sinner?” The driver smiled and replied, “Because it’s different!” Rabbi Dave was not satisfied, but the driver just laughed and drove away.

The above story gave me a deep insight into human behavior, a concept taught in Parshas Tazria. This parsha discusses how a metzora (a person afflicted with tzora’as, a skin disease) is banished from the three camps of Bnei Yisrael. He must live outside the camps and dress like a person in mourning. In addition, he must call out to anyone who comes near him, “I am tamei (defiled).”

The Gemara says that the affliction of tzora’as comes as a punishment for a host of sins, including lashon hara, haughtiness and stinginess. When the metzora calls out, “I am defiled,” he is publicizing to everyone that he’s a sinner. But why publicize he’s a sinner? Rashi explains that it’s simple: he needs to prevent people from becoming defiled if they come in direct contact with him.

However, the Gemara seemingly gives an entirely different reason. In the time of the Gemara, when someone owned a fruit tree whose fruit fell off before ripening, he would paint a red stripe on the trunk of the tree. This would indicate to passersby that the tree is sick, and they should daven for the tree and for the prosperity of its owner. The Gemara says that this concept is derived from the metzora, who must call out “I am defiled” to everyone around him, so that they may daven for him to be healed.

I believe that the rationales of both Rashi and the Gemara, though seemingly different, are the same. Let me explain with an example:

A friend of my wife teaches in a girls’ high school. She had a student who wore a hoodie covering her head during the entire class. The girl was sending a clear message: “Leave me alone!” But the teacher understood that deep down, the message was the exact opposite. This young lady was really screaming, “Please pay attention to me; please help me.” The teacher befriended the girl and was able to bring her out. The girl started interacting with her classmates and became an active participant in the class.

The metzora—the sinner—is the same. He must call out to everyone to stay away, so they do not become defiled. But he’s really screaming, “I need help to remedy my sins. Please notice me. Please daven on my behalf.” Rashi’s reason, to stay away to prevent others from becoming defiled, and the Gemara’s reason, to have others notice him and daven on his behalf, are two aspects…of the same concept.

People have a basic need to feel that they are worthy of recognition. The individual with the license plate “SINNER” felt that the only way to get some type of attention was to advertise himself as a sinner. Life lesson: Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get negative attention than positive attention. But really, people crave healthy positive attention and interaction. It’s just harder to get.

If you see someone who is struggling, don’t just listen to the non-verbal message they might be conveying of “stay away.” Listen to the underlying message that he or she is really transmitting: “Please notice me and please care for me.” Sometimes you can befriend the person and get close to him like the teacher did, resulting in a positive change for the person. Sometimes becoming friends with them can be harmful, like coming too close to a metzora. But in all cases, we should still help them by at least davening on their behalf. It’s always a mitzvah to go out of our way, in some manner, to help our fellow Jews.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com

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