A New Start
Parshas Metzora outlines the purification process for a person struck by tzoraas. (1) One of the essential stages of this process is tevila (immersion) in a mikva. The Sefer HaChinuch suggests a reason for the significance of tevila as a key part in the process of repentance which the metzora - a person afflicted with tzoraas - is undergoing. He explains that the world was full of water before man was created and therefore symbolizes a return to the beginning of creation. Dipping into water is a gesture of leaving behind past mistakes and starting afresh.(2)
When a person sins and then recognizes his failure, there is a natural tendency to feel guilt-ridden and low. This can be directed in a positive way, motivating him to avoid such sin in the future. But it can also have a undesirable effect, causing the person to fall into a downward spiral of spiritual failing. When a person feels low about what he has done, he may become disconcerted and lose the strength to continue in his Divine Service as before. In this way the 'fall-out' from a sin can actually be far more damaging than the sin itself. Immersion in a mikva after a sin symbolizes that the person is saying that he will not be bound by his past errors and will not let them bring him down further.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l notes many examples in the Tanach (Books of the Prophets) where a person sinned or failed in one area and as a result, suffered a great decline that destroyed their spiritual standing. A striking case is that of Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi. When Naomi was returning to the land of Israel, both Ruth and Orpah were determined to stay with her and convert to Judaism. At this point, Orpah was on the same lofty level as the great Ruth, equally willing to leave her homeland to join the Jewish people. However, after Naomi's supplications for them to return, she could not withstand the test and gave in and went back to Moav. It would seem logical that after this single lapse Orpah would still stand on a high spiritual level, just a little lower than that of Ruth. However, the Midrash tell us that on the very night when she left Naomi, she sunk to the lowest levels of depravity.(3) How could it be that she fell in such a dramatic way in one night? Rav Shmuelevitz explains that when she saw that she failed in the great test to join the Jewish people, she could not leave her sin behind and start afresh. She was greatly affected by her inability to stand up to challenges, and consequently lost all sense of balance and fell to the powers of the yetser hara (negative inclination).(4)
Rav Shmuelevitz cites another incident in Tanach in which a great man failed a challenge and recognized the danger he was in of falling into the trap of being completely ensnared by the yetser hara. The Prophet Shmuel instructed King Saul to destroy all of Amalek, however Saul left some animals and the Amalekite King Agag alive. Shmuel confronted him and told him that he had forfeited his right to the kingdom with this sin. After failing to exonerate himself Saul admitted his guilt but then made a very strange request of Shmuel. "Please now honor me in front of the Sages of my people and the people of Israel..." (5) What was the purpose of this request? It was surely not merely an attempt by Saul to feel better about himself. Moreover, Shmuel acceded to the request, indicating its validity.
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that Saul did not merely want honor, rather he knew that he was in danger of suffering a great fall and he realized that he needed to strengthen himself immediately so that he would not be adversely effected by his sin. Therefore, amidst this great spiritual fall he asked Shmuel to honor him and thereby help him maintain his sense of equilibrium and start afresh.(6) It seems that Shmuel, despite his displeasure with Saul, consented to his request because he recognized its importance.
We also learn from the actions of Saul a strategy for how to prevent failure having a disastrous effect. When a person fails, he is likely to feel bad about himself and lose his sense of self-respect. When a person feels that he is a failure he may give up and let himself fall badly. In order to avoid this he must maintain his self-image after failure and recognize that even though he made a mistake he can repent and start again.
King Solomon makes this very point in Proverbs when he writes: "A righteous man (tzaddik) falls seven times but he gets up." (7) The Malbim and Metsudos David explain that despite a tzaddik's setbacks he rises up again. Indeed, a big part of what makes a person a tzaddik is his ability to recover from failure or mistakes. The tevila of the metzora teaches us the same lesson - even though he sinned he need not be doomed to perpetual downfall. If he can put his past behind him he can make a fresh start.
1. This is a spiritual malaise that it sometimes described as leprosy however Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch proves at length that tzoraas is not the same as the physical sickness of leprosy.
2. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 173. It seems that the sybmolism of a new start applies to other processes that require tevila such as conversion whereby a person is considered to be born anew.
3. Ruth Rabbah, 2:20.
4. Sichos Mussar, Maamar 55, p.236.
5. Shmuel 1, 15:28-30.
6. Ibid. p.237-8.
7. Proverbs, 24:16.