Don’t Only Look at the Disease; See the Person




    Don’t Only Look at the Disease; See the Person

    Read an essay on this week’s Parsha by Rabbi YY Jacobson, a world renowned lecturer on Nigleh and Chassidus and the dean of www.TheYeshiva.Net • Full Story

    Read an essay on this week’s Parsha by Rabbi YY Jacobson, a world renowned lecturer on Nigleh and Chassidus and the dean of www.TheYeshiva.Net.


    The Redundancy

    The Torah portion of Tazria, Leviticus chapter 13, discusses the laws of tzaraas, an unusual illness, identified by a white patch appearing on the skin of a person with the hair inside of it turning white. This was symptomatic of an internal moral and spiritual blemish, and it deemed the person as temporarily “impure.” He or she was required to separate from the community and undergo an intense program of introspection and healing.[1]

    The Torah describes the procedures for determining the tzaraas/leprosy condition:

    The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh; If hair in the affliction has turned white, and the affliction’s appearance is deeper than the skin of his flesh –- it is a tzaraas affliction; the Kohen shall look at him and make him impure.

    The Torah is stating that only a Kohen (a priest), a descendent of Aaron the High Priest, was authorized to diagnose a tzaraas-leprosy and pronounce the malady as such. Even in a case where all the symptoms of the illness are clearly present and a multitude of scholars recognize it as tzaraas, the person cannot be diagnosed as possessing this malady unless a Kohen states so explicitly.[2]

    But there is a blatant strange redundancy in the above verse. Can you see it?

    The verse states: “The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh… the Kohen shall look at it and make him impure.” Why is the same phrase repeated? The Torah should have said:  “The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh… and make him impure.” Why does it say again, “the Kohen shall look at it?”[3]

    One of the great rabbis of the last generation offered a magnificent explanation. As it turns out, the origins of what we call today “holistic medicine” and the “integrated approach” are in the Torah.

    Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843–1926), author of the Torah commentary Meshech Chochma, was one of the prominent sages and leaders in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. He himself was a Kohen, and hence this insight is even more personal.[4]

    The Two Steps

    The Meshech Chochmah suggests that the Torah is teaching us a profound law and lesson.[5]

    There are two distinct evaluations that need to be made. Note that the first time around the Torah states: “The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh…” The second time around the Torah states: “The Kohen shall look at him and make him impure.”

    These, suggests Reb Meir Simcha, are two separate evaluations. One is on the disease; the other is on the person. First, the Kohen must look at the affliction (“V’raah haKohen es haNega”) and see if it is one that technically meets the definition of a tzaraas-leprosy description. He must examine the symptoms and determine the proper diagnosis based on the nature of this disease. What he is looking at is the affliction.

    But that is not enough. He must now look at something else. He must look at the person (“v’raahhu haKohen”), “and the Kohen shall look at HIM,” and see if it is appropriate to declare this person impure. The symptoms may be present, but the person may not be in a state where you can declare him or her impure.

    The Torah instructs the Kohen to evaluate two independent factors: (a) whether the blemish is indeed a tzaraas; and (b) whether at this time it is appropriate to turn the person into a metzorah. Unless both factors are present, the Kohen should not declare the person impure.

    The Practical Difference

    As an example of this, Reb Meir Simcha quotes the following Talmudic law:[6]

    “If the leper is a newlywed groom, he is given the Seven Days of Feasting (before declaring him impure), and the same applies on a Festival.” [7] Meaning, if a fresh groom or bride develops the symptoms of leprosy, the Kohen will not examine them and declare them impure, even if all the symptoms are blatantly present, until after a full week passes since the wedding. The same is true for the seven days of the holidays, Passover and Sukkos. In order to avoid spoiling one’s wedding celebration or the joy of the festival (Yom Tov), the Kohen has the license to delay proclaiming the person a metzorah (a leper) even though he knows full well that the skin condition qualifies as leprosy.[8]

    How can the Rabbis come up with such a novel law? If the Torah says that someone is a leper and needs a certain treatment, delaying it is wrong. It is like delaying medical treatment for a patient in the middle of the holidays, so as not to aggravate him! You are not doing him a favor. How then could the Rabbis come up with this novel law that we may delay the entire process of examination and diagnosis?

    The Sages derived this law from the following verse: “And on the day that it will be seen.” Why is the day mentioned here? The verse could have said, “and when it will be seen.” The words “and on the day” come to teach us that there are days when the Kohen will not look at the leprosy. The Kohen must look if it is the right time to declare him impure, or we must wait for another time. From this, the Talmud deduced that certain times are off-limits for examining the symptoms of the leprosy. And they reasoned which days would be considered off-limits.

    This is as far as times are concerned. The Meshech Chochmah brilliantly argues that the meaning behind the redundancy in the above verse teaches us something even more powerful: Sometimes the person is not ready for this verdict. The Torah instructs the Kohen not only to look at the symptoms, not only to look at the time but also to look at the person. Not only to examine the malady but also to peer into the human being. The person may have the disease, but if the person is not ready to become impure, he should not deem him impure.

    This is a novel idea of the Meshech Chochmah. The Kohen has the right to ignore the symptoms for any reason that makes the Kohen feel that it is wrong to declare him impure. For example, if this person with the symptoms must be in the company of people; to quarantine him outside of the Jewish camp would be dangerous and counter-productive, then this person is not in a state where he or she can be seen and diagnosed as being impure.

    A New Medicine

    Fascinatingly, this approach, articulated millennia ago in the Torah, is reflected in contemporary medicine.

    There are two approaches to medicine. The decision as to which model to use for diagnosis and treatment of the patient revolves around the following question: does the physician treat with the goal of ameliorating his patient’s symptoms, or does he treat with the goal of putting the entire patient in balance, treating the person, not only the disease? With the goal of stopping pain or discomfort, and eliminate symptoms, the physician needs to consider the fastest, least complicated, least expensive, and most efficacious therapy, and the approach with the fewest side effects. Should his goal be to promote overall balance and wellbeing, the physician needs to choose a treatment protocol that best addresses the patient’s patterns and differential diagnosis, constitution, and history, including imbalances in the patient’s biochemistry, biomechanics, and bioelectricity, as well as non-physical considerations: his emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual state.

    The Torah is intimating to us that a healer’s approach should be not only to focus and get rid of the symptoms but rather to look at and treat the “whole person,” for if not, the whole person will not get well. Either there will be some other new condition, or the condition originally treated will return. The Torah advocates a “holistic approach,” appreciating all facets of a person’s life, and seeing how all aspects of our lives are integrated, rather than just suppress local symptoms.

    How to Diagnose People

    The message to all of us is how we judge ourselves and others.

    Before I can pronounce a person as impure, I need to see the person, not only the problem. Do I know how to recognize the difference between evil and trauma? Between selfishness and fear? Between being bad and being wounded?

    A teacher of mine once told me: do not answer the question; answer the person. A person may come and ask you: why did my mother die young? You may be a wise guy and say because she had a weak heart. Maybe you answered the question, but you did not answer the person. He was not asking a medical question; he was asking an emotional question. He is in pain. He misses his mother.

    The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers tells us[9] to “give every person the benefit of the doubt.” But a more precise translation is that “one should judge the whole person as meritorious.” (“Heve dan es kol haAdam l’kaf zechus.”) Before you judge someone, you need to look at all the factors making up the person. You need to look at “kal haAdam,” at the entire human being, before you give a diagnosis. Never judge somebody without knowing the whole story and the whole person. You may think you understand, but you don’t.

    A Tale of Two Therapists

    There are also two types of therapists. Those who fit each patient into a pre-existing mode; and those who will tune in to the unique persona and struggles of the patient.

    They do not fit him into their boxes, but rather employ their models, and will barrow from diverse models, to help accommodate the person they are treating.

    When Your Child Rejects You

    Your child, or your student, may be behaving disrespectfully. He may be saying hurtful things. At such a moment you are tempted to look at him and say: You are tameh! You are impure. Get out of my home.

    Technically, you may be correct. He has all the symptoms. His behaviors are ill-conceived and obnoxious. But the Torah says: Wait! “Varahu HaKohen,” you must not only look at the actual behavior, at the actual words coming out of his or her mouth but also at the entire human being. Evaluate his entire story.

    In life, don’t try to suppress the symptoms; but rather try to understand the person.

    Will calling this child “impure,” “contaminated,” “tarnished,” really help him or her? Is this what he or she needs? Will this really serve his or her interests? Will it help him rehabilitate himself? Is it possible that there is a deep pain in this child’s heart which he is incapable of addressing and is causing him deep anguish and anger? Maybe this is a time he needs more of his father, not less of his father? He needs more empathy, not less. It is precisely at this moment that he needs you much more than he can even articulate!

    I See Your Heart

    Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzaddik of Jerusalem, was once walking on the street, when he saw a former student of his, who had abandoned the Jewish way of life, walking toward him. When the student noticed that he was walking directly toward his former master, he crossed the street to avoid him.

    Reb Aryeh went after him and said with a smile: “I’m so happy to see you! Why did you avoid me?”

    The student replied: “I will be perfectly honest. I am embarrassed to see you because I don’t have a kipa on my head…”

    Reb Aryeh looked at him and said: “My dear student, don’t you realize that I am a short man! I can only see up to your heart.”

    There are two types of educators and teachers. Some just see the rules and the deviations of the rules, but others can just peer into the heart and see a soul.

    Do Not Win Arguments

    In 1963, Professor Velvel Green was a rising star at the University of Minnesota. Green was a pioneer in the field of bacteriology, having been invited by NASA to study the effects of space travel on human life. The young scientist was visiting and lecturing at dozens of universities across America each year.

    1963 was also the year that Professor Green first met Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary in Minneapolis. Up to that point, the Greens, like many American Jews of their generation, gave little credence to their Jewish heritage; observances like Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillin struck them as old-fashioned, if not primitive. But in the young Chassidic couple, Professor Green saw a vibrant and fulfilling outlook and lifestyle, one which could fill the deep void in his successful yet rootless life.

    At Rabbi Feller’s suggestion, Professor Green wrote to the Rebbe about this “void” and his interest in Judaism; the Rebbe’s warm and engaging reply was not long in coming. The two developed a steady correspondence, and the young scientist was soon taken by the Rebbe’s phenomenal mind and passionate devotion. With each letter, Green found himself further encouraged along his spiritual journey and his commitment to Torah. Soon the Greens had made their kitchen kosher and begun to observe Shabbat.

    One day Professor Green came across a letter the Rebbe wrote to a scientist concerning the Torah’s account of the creation of the universe and the rejection of the theory of evolution. Dr. Green penned a no-holds-barred critique. “Because I greatly respected the Rebbe,” Professor Green recalls, “I dropped the forgiving tone that scientists often use with laymen, addressing the Rebbe as if he were a colleague whose ideas I rejected. I bluntly stated that he was wrong, specifying what I saw as faulty and unscientific. I concluded my letter by saying that the Rebbe had best stick to his field of expertise, Torah, and leave science to scientists.”

    But the Rebbe’s next letter resumed their correspondence where it had originally begun – in Green’s spiritual quest and his Jewish identity. Of the evolution issue – not a word. The Professor assumed that the Rebbe was conceding that in matters of empirical fact, Torah must defer to scientific reason. With this, he considered the matter closed.

    Professor Green’s progress towards a Torah-true life continued, and over the next year and a half, he reported to the Rebbe each Jewish milestone along his journey: full Shabbat observance, observance of family purity, etc. The Rebbe responded with words of encouragement and blessing, and, on one occasion, a gift of a pair of tefillin which Green began to wrap regularly.

    Then came the letter in which the Greens told the Rebbe that they had decided to place their children in a Yeshivah to receive the fullest possible Jewish education. The Rebbe’s reply was especially warm and encouraging, as befitting the turning point in their lives that such a move indicated. Then, at the end of his letter, the Rebbe added, “By the way, concerning what you wrote me regarding the Torah’s account of creation…” and proceeded to refute, point by point, Professor Green’s objections to the Rebbe’s “unscientific” treatment of the subject.

    “You are probably wondering,” concluded the Rebbe, “why I waited this long to respond to your remarks on the matter. But my job in life is not to win arguments. My job is to bring Jews closer to the Torah and its mitzvot.”

    Don’t try to win arguments; try to help people.


    [1] See Talmud Erkin 15b. Midrash Rabah Tazria. Klei Yakar to Tazria and many of the commentators on the portion.

    [2] The ramifications of this biblical law are far-reaching. For example, even if the only Kohen present is a child so that he is unable to examine the person in question, a trustworthy scholar needs to report his findings to the Kohen, and it is only the Kohen who may pronounce the white-patched person as impure. Even if the only Kohen around is an imbecile, lacking the knowledge and understanding required to give a diagnosis, it is only he who is entitled to make the verbal pronouncement under the instruction and guidance of an adult scholar. (Toras Kohanim. Mishnah Negaim chapter 3. Maimonidies laws of Tumas Tzaraas 9:2. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 27 Tazria).

    [3] The question is raised in Toras Kohanim, where a halachic answer is given.

    [4] Reb Meir Simcha served as the Rabbi of the Latvian city of Dvinsk (now known as Daugavpils). He served in that position for 39 years until his death and authored a famous work on the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, Ohr Somayach. He also wrote a classic work on the Torah, Meshech Chochmah. (In Dvinsk, he was the Rabbi of the Ashkenazim, while his counterpart was the Chasidic Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon or by his work Tzofnath Paneach. The two had great respect for each other).

    In Dvinsk, he received visitors from the whole region and was frequently consulted on issues affecting the community at large, including Poland and Lithuania. He died in 1926 in a hotel in Riga while seeking medical treatment. He had one daughter, who predeceased him. (She got married, but both she and her husband died young without children.)

    His name is carried and lives on by his two works: Ohr Somayach, which is a derivative of his name Meir Simcha, meaning joyous light. And his work Meshech Chochmah: Meshech is an acronym of his name, Meir Simcha Kohen.

    [5] משך חכמה פ’ תזריע: וראה הכהן את הנגע כו’ וראהו הכהן. הכפילות מבואר. ועיין תו”כ. ויתכן ע”ד רז”ל שהכוונה שיראה את הנגע אם היא ראויה לטמאנה, הוא שיש בה סימן טומאה שער לבן, וראהו הכהן הוא שיראה הכהן על האיש אם ראוי לטמאותו, הוא אם חתן נותנין לו כל ז’ ימי המשתה, וכן ברגל נותנין לו כל ימות הרגל, שלא לערבב שמחתו, ודרכיה דרכי נועם, ולכן וראהו איך הוא באיכותו אם הוא ראוי לפי הזמן לטמאותו, וזה שאמר וביום הראות יש יום שאי אתה רואה הוא ענין מצד הזמן, לא שאם לפי תכונתו צריך התחברות עם אנשים וכיו”ב אינך רואה בו, רק כשהוא ענין מצד הזמן. בינה זה.

    [6] מועד קטן ז, ב: והתניא וביום הראות בו (תזריע יג, יד), יש יום שאתה רואה בו ויש יום שאי אתה רואה בו. מכאן אמרו חתן שנולד בו נגע נותנין לו ז’ ימי המשתה לו ולביתו ולכסותו, וכן ברגל נותנין לו שבעת ימי הרגל.

    [7] Moed Katan 7b

    [8] For a detailed explanation, see Likkutei Sichos vol. 37 Tazria.

    [9] Avos 1:6


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