Thirty-one years ago this Shabbos, my older brother Mordechai had his Bar Mitzvah, on Shabbos parshat Tazria Metzora. He was the trailblazer, the first one of us to have a Bar Mitzvah, and I remember listening to him practice his parsha in the weeks and months leading up to the big day at the Young Israel of Montreal.
As much as I remember him practicing to get the trop and the words just right, I remember being mystified (and vaguely grossed out) by the parsha itself. Tazria-Metzora, the double parsha where bar mitzvah speeches go to die, is filled with all sorts of bodily emissions, festering sores, priestly remedies and concepts of tahor (pure) and tameih (impure) that are rather obscure and unrelatable to a thirteen year-old kid.
The best a Bar Mitzvah boy could really have hoped for was to give a dvar torah about the well-known connection between the physical/spiritual illness of tza’arat (incorrectly defined as leprosy) and lashon hara (derogatory speech about another person). But really, where’s the fun in that? We even used to have a goody two-shoes chant about lashon hara that went:
“Lashon Hara, Lamed Heh, go to hell the easy way!“
Like I said, not exactly the type of dvar torah a kid on the cusp of manhood would have wanted to give, given that the rebellious teenage years was right around the corner, even though the average kid looked and acted like this:
The truth is that the deeper lessons of the double Torah portion Tazria-Metzora are hidden away, tucked behind words and symbols that mean little to thirteen year-old boys, and take many, many years to understand and internalize. One such lesson is as follows:
When this week’s parsha begins to describe about how the metzora (the person afflicted with the tzara’at illness) is purified and rehabilitated back into the camp of Am Yisrael, it states:
“And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his cleansing; he shall be brought to the priest. The priest shall go out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and see if the plague of tzara’at has been healed in the leper. Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two live and kosher birds, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop”. (Vayikra 14:1-4)
Rashi, in his indispensable 11th century commentary, contrasts the materials used in the quoted cleansing process:
ועץ ארז And cedar wood — This lofty tree was used because plagues come also as a punishment for haughtiness.
ושני תולעת ואזוב And crimson and hyssop — What is the remedy he should use, that he may be healed? Let him, abandoning pride, regard himself lowly as a worm (תולעת) and as hyssop.
Along comes Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (Przysucha, in Poland), the amazing chassidic rebbe, and a leader of Chasidic Judaism in Poland in the early 19th century, and contributes this beautiful teaching to future generations of Jews:
A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying (Sanhedrin 37a), “A person is commanded to maintain: Bishvili nivra ha-olam, For my sake was the world created.” In the second pocket he should keep the verse (Genesis 18:17), “V’anokhi afar v’efer, I am but dust and ashes.”
Most people know only this part of the teaching, and stop there – yes, it makes sense to be a balanced person, not too high or low. But Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s teaching continues, it’s most critical part, which states:
When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”
This subtle, profound life lesson, which requires years to work on and a lifetime to understand, is deeply embedded into the physical materials used in a cleansing ritual for tza’arat that was last done more than 2,000 years-ago, in the times of the second Beit Hamikdash and re-framed in spiritual terms by Rabbi Simcha Bunim centuries later.
That thirteen-year-old boy at his Bar Mitzvah, or that twelve-year-old girl at her Bat Mitzvah, has not yet begun to understand just how important this particular life lesson really is. At the very least, they need to begin by filling their “pockets” with these timeless words of Torah, and we as parents and educators need to help in this respect, even if they may not open those pockets for many years to come. How many young adults and adults do we know who seem to have lost this balance, this dual lesson in humility and awareness of our special role in this world. How many people, filled with so much beauty and potential, do we know who think so little of themselves that it borders on crippling self-harm? How many people do we know who carry themselves like they are infallible, incapable of seeing their own limitations? Both types of people functionally separate themselves from the camp of Am Yisrael, as it were, as they are unable to understand just how much they have in common with everyone else, and cannot really see the Godly in themselves or in others.
To our children, we need to say: Look in your pockets. Those timeless verses and teachings are there; your family and your school helped place them there. The trick for you to learn is to know which pocket to open at what time in your lives. It can, and will, make all the difference in the world.