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Parshas Metzora - I Am Blind So I Can See (A Tribute to My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Bender shlit"a)

One of the fascinating halachos that we find in connection with tzaras is that the Kohen who declares the Metzora pure or impure must have good eyesight. If he is blind or even weaker in one eye the Kohen is unfit pronounce the status of the Metzora. At first glance, this halacha seems to make perfect sense. If the Kohen can’t see the nega tzaras, how can he pronounce someone Tamei or Tahor? But this is not so simple. To begin with the Kohen is just making the declaration. If he is a minor or ignorant in the area of tzaras, a chacham who is knowledgeable in these areas is brought in to determine if it is tzaras and he then tells the Kohen what to say. Being blind does not prevent a Kohen from saying what the chacham tells him to say. The Rambam (Hilchos Tumas Tzaras 9:5) teaches that a Kohen who is a baal mum, while he is not fit for service in the Beis HaMikdash, is indeed capable of declaring someone a Metzora. Why would a blind man be any different?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, explained that Tumas Tzaras is the worst form of Tumah. Not only is the Metzora expelled from the community, even other people who are tamei are forbidden from sitting with him. On the other hand, tzaras is only is skin deep. It does not penetrate the actual person. The Metzora may have done a terrible aveira but that does not mean that his essence is in any way changed. We refer to someone who is blind as a sagi nahor, someone who sees too much light. While many assume that this is just a polite way of saying someone is blind, in actuality there is a much deeper message. There are multiple ways of thinking about blindness. We can consider blindness as a state where one is incapable of seeing or as a state where someone is so overwhelmed by light that sight becomes impossible. Filtering out the light is what allows us to see but the sagi nahor, the one who is overwhelmed by light, does not have the capacity to refract the light thus leaving him blind. On a spiritual level the blind man is someone who does not have the capacity to see the tzimtzumim, the refractions, of this world. He is overwhelmed by light. He sees straight through to the essence. Such a person would not know how to begin when declaring someone a Meztora. It is merely a tumah of the skin but it does not reflect who the person actually is. The chacham who is knowledgeable in the discipline of Tzaras can tell the Kohen what to say but the blind Kohen sees more than the chacham ever could. Whereas the Chacham can diagnose the disease, the Kohen sees the perfection of the person. On the outside he may be flawed but on the inside he is complete. The external is important. The Metzora is removed from the camp and is totally isolated. We do not deny the danger of someone who speaks so slanderously about Klal Yisrael. On the other hand, even someone as broken as the Metzora is not out of reach. As we say in davening every day, Elokai neshoma shenasata bi tehora hi, God the soul that you have given me is pure. No matter what we have done we are still in our essence pure. The soul, as a piece of God, can never be truly sullied. Dovid HaMelech is described as yefei einayim, someone who had beautiful eyes. The Alexander Rebbe asked, does the Torah need to teach us that Dovid had blue eyes? Of what concern is that to us?!? Rather the Torah was teaching us that Dovid HaMelech knew how to look at the world in a beautiful way. Whereas some are only able to see skin deep, to focus on the flaws of humanity, others are gifted with a deeper dimension of sight. They may be blind to the external but they can see all the way through to the essence. The blind Kohen is such a person.

In our own lives we often face the test of evaluating people. This is not a bad thing. We teach our children to ask themselves, “Is this a good friend? Is this someone I should be surrounding myself with or is this someone who is walking on a path that is chas vishalom going to lead somewhere that is beneath my Godly dignity?” Judgement is not a bad thing. But there is a difference between taking active measures to distance oneself from people who may have a negative influence on us (as the Rambam says one is obligated to do in Hilchos Deos) and labeling them as someone who is intrinsically bad. Rabbeim and teachers may have to focus on a student’s negative performance but that should never be conflated with the student themselves. The conduct of the student may be poor. The performance on a test may be subpar. The attitude of the student may leave much to be desired. But the student themselves is nothing less than the only child of God and it is a privilege to be a part of their journey. And this attitude is especially important when it comes to those children who are struggling. They, more than anyone, need their Rabbeim and teachers to see them for who they truly are and not in the limited scope of their current performance. Sometimes turning a “blind eye” to a child’s behavior is an important part of seeing them for who they truly are. Of course we must employ these chinuch strategies carefully. Knowing when to look away and when to engage requires wisdom and thoughtfulness. But even when we choose to engage a child’s misbehavior it is important to let the child know that while their behavior was inappropriate, they are still worthy of our love and attention.

Rabbi Bender shlit”a, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, my alma mater, recently published a Haggadah entitled, the Chinuch Haggadah. It is replete with beautiful Divrei Torah and inspiring stories (many about Rabbi Bender’s own family). Rabbi Bender quotes the Chiddushei HaRim, the Gerrer Rebbe, who explained the inner meaning of Makkas Choshech. The darkness of Makkas Choshech was total. “Lo rau ish es achiv vilo kamu ish mitachtav”, a person could not see his brother and no one rose from his place. This was true not only on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well. When someone cannot “see” his brother, then lo kamu, he cannot rise, he cannot grow. Rabbi Bender followed this beautiful idea with stories about the incredible sensitivities that the Gedolim had when hearing about the pain of others. The Gedolim were the giants they were because they were able to see the pain of another. I would like to humbly suggest an alternative pshat as well. When we cannot “see” our brothers then they, our brothers, cannot stand up. So much of what gives us strength (especially when we are younger) is the way we are seen by others. When people see us in a positive light it allows us to see that light within ourselves. When a Rebbe, a parent or a teacher see us in a negative light we can sense that as well and the results can be horrific. Of course this doesn’t mean that we ought to give a trophy to every child. There is real value to facing the consequences of our actions and sometimes strong discipline is an important part of education. A child will know the difference between the Rebbe that is disciplining him from a place of love and the Rebbe who legitimately doesn’t like the child. It is our job to see our brothers in a Godly way and raise them up to be the best version of themselves. The Mishna in Avos (1:12) instructs us to be from the talmidim of Aharon HaKohen. The Rambam explains that when Aharon would sense that someone was heading in the wrong direction he would speak with them extensively in a pleasant fashion and he would truly love them. The person having experienced the affection that Aharon showed them would think to themselves “if Aharon would know who I really am he wouldn’t even be able to look at me let alone to speak with me. But in his eyes I am a good person so I will live up to who he thinks I am.” Such was the “kiruv” style of Aharon HaKohen.

I have been beyond blessed to have Rabbi Bender in my life. In a time of my life when I felt unwanted by any school, Rabbi Bender opened the doors of Yeshiva Darchei Torah to me and my family. Even as I write these words thirty years later my eyes well up with tears. Tears from the pain of a child who felt unwanted but also tears of a child who knew he had found a home in Darchei and loving parents in Rabbi Bender, Mr. Altabe (our principal) and the wonderful Rabbeim I was privileged to have (Rabbi Kraus, Rabbi Glenn, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman and Rabbi Grossman). Looking back I can understand that I was a disruptive influence in the classroom and that must not have been easy to manage to say the least. More than a couple of times in my three and a half years in Darchei I had to be asked to leave the classroom. I certainly had my fair share of discipline. But I never felt unwanted. In Darchei I felt like I belonged. I felt loved. I felt appreciated. I felt seen for the person I knew I had inside of me and not for the rule breaking child that I was. In Darchei they were truly sagi nahor, overwhelmed with light. It started from the top down. Our Rosh Yeshiva cherished every talmid that walked in the doors and it filtered down to every Rebbe and every teacher. The aleph talmidim, the talmidim with learning disabilities, the talmidim with behavioral issues… we were all treated with respect. Rabbi Bender saw us with kindness and compassion and it raised us up from the darkness. I believe that our Rosh Yeshiva embodies the pshat of the Chiddushei HaRim. He is an Adam Gadol because of the sensitivity he has when seeing each one of his talmidim. But I believe that my pshat is correct as well. I know it because I lived it. Thank you Rebbe for seeing me as a brother and lifting me up out of the darkness.

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