April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Frequently, when I meet someone from the Philadelphia area, they ask me if I’m related to “Mrs. Hansi Bodenheim.” “That’s my Oma (the German term for grandmother),” I respond. “I loved your grandmother,” they often tell me. She was a librarian and preschool teacher at the Torah Academy of Philadelphia for close to 40 years. She was beloved by all the students. Why? Any child who was kicked out of class would find their way to the library, where they would be welcomed by my grandmother and made to feel special, which helped motivate them to improve their behavior. The child would leave with a delicious home-baked cinnamon bun or other pastry and felt really good. This past week was my Oma’s yahrzeit.

In parshas Tazria-Metzora, the Torah discusses a person afflicted with tzara’as (leprosy). He must leave the city and live in isolation. One might think that he’s banished because he has an infectious disease. Rav Shamshon Refoel Hirsch writes that people have the erroneous notion that the laws of nega’im (blemishes on the skin, clothing or house) represent the “sanitary portion of Mosaic law.” The British believed that the Jews put the leper into isolation to prevent transmission of this infection. Rav Hirsch cites the report on leprosy by the Royal College of Physicians (found in the British journal “Ausland,” 1868). The government commissioned this report to investigate an alarming increase in the cases of leprosy in the British colonies. Their conclusion was that leprosy is not infectious, and they questioned the isolation of the “leper” in the Torah.

Rav Hirsch brings multiple proofs that the whole notion of sequestering the metzora (person with tzara’as) is misunderstood. There’s no infection. If a person suspects tzara’as in his house, the Torah instructs the Kohen to tell him to remove all his possessions from inside the house before any determination is made. Why before the determination? Because if their house is deemed to have tzara’as, then all items inside at the time of the determination will become tamei (ritually impure.) Clearly, if tzara’as was contagious, the Torah would want to contain the infection and not have all the possessions put outside!

Further, if tzara’as was an infectious disease, the metzora should be going to a doctor—not a Kohen/rabbi. Not only that, the rule was that no one was examined on holidays. If it was an infectious disease, the person would be examined immediately to prevent further spread.

The Ramban explains that tzara’as is a spiritual malady. The Gemara says that tzara’as afflicts a person as a punishment for slanderous or abusive speech, or arrogant behavior. The message in banishing the metzora is that his social interactions are harmful; therefore, he needs to be temporarily isolated from society.

Today, we’re not on the spiritual level to be afflicted with tzara’as, which would help us guard our tongues. Still, we learn the lesson from the Torah about harmful speech. Rabbi Moshe Wolfson notes that the parshiyos of Tazria and Metzora are always read during the period of Sefiras HaOmer (counting the days between Pesach and Shavuos), indicating that these lessons are especially pertinent for this time period.

We just finished Pesach, a holiday with lots of eating and conversation! Last week, Parshas Shemini discussed which animals are kosher and which are not. Tazria and Metzora focus on the metzora who speaks harmful words. The theme is to be mindful of not just what goes into our mouths, but also what goes out. Both input and output must be kosher. Our words make our home, office and surroundings feel welcoming … or uncomfortable. Eating kosher is easy for most observant Jews. There’s no shortage of kosher products to purchase, so “input” is covered. But, how do we train ourselves to refrain from derogatory speech? After all, the Chofetz Chaim says that it’s one of the hardest habits to break if one isn’t careful from youth.

The answer is to take small but steady steps. Any lasting change in behavior for the betterment of a person is only accomplished through steady, daily practice. We need to train ourselves to look for the positive … a day at a time, like we do in counting the Omer until Shavuos. Rav Shimshon Pincus says counting each day indicates that each day counts as an important step to help us reach our goal of receiving and immersing ourselves in the Torah.

My rebbe at the Mir, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, spoke about the value of appreciating positive happenings in our daily lives. He encouraged us to write down three things each day that we appreciate. I found it beneficial and impactful to keep notes each day of small, simple things I appreciated but normally took for granted.

Applying the simple daily exercise of my rosh yeshiva can help transform us to focus on the good aspects of others. Just like counting the Omer helps us to prepare for receiving the Torah on Shavuos, using our words to say at least one compliment a day to make others feel happy—and not cause others pain—will help us to reach that goal.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged, but contributions are always welcome. 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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