The Torah discusses the laws of the Metzora, a person stricken by Tzaraat, an ancient disease1, and tells us the process of purification and repentance that he must go through before he can be healed. It begins this passage with the verse: “If a person (adam) will have on the skin of his flesh, a seis or a sapachat, or a baheret, and it will become a tzaraat affliction on the skin of his flesh. He shall be brought to Aaron HaKohen.2”: The Netsiv notes the usage of the term adam to describe the man who is struck with tzaraat. He cites a Zohar that says that there are four different ways that the Torah refers to human beings, including adam, ish, gever and enosh. The highest and most complimentary of those terms is adam, referring to a distinguished man.

The question arises, why did the Torah apply the loftiest term for man when describing the metzora? The Sages tells us that a person becomes a metzora as a punishment for serious sins, such as lashon hara, or for having negative traits such as tzoraat ayin (being stingy), or arrogance. He must go through a lengthy purification process in which he is shown the error of his ways. Accordingly, it is evident that we are not dealing with an especially righteous person, so why is he referred to in the most complimentary way?

Rabbi Nissan Alpert3 offers an interesting thought on this question: The difference between an adam chashuv [a distinguished person] and others, is not whether from time to time he slips and commits sins. The difference that separates the “Adam” from the less distinguished individual is the willingness on his part to admit that he has made a mistake and that he is willing to improve. The Metzora who is ready to undergo the process of purification and repentance, is now a person who is willing to change and grow – that is the factor that determines the greatness of a person, not necessarily the fact that he never made a mistake.

This concept appears in a number of places in the Rabbinnic sources and the commentators: The Gemara4 discusses the requirements for a valid act of matrimony (Kiddushin) when the man makes the Kiddushin dependent upon a certain factor taking place. One example that is discussed is if someone who is well-known as a rasha (evildoer) says that he wants to perform the act of Kiddushin5 on condition that he is a tzaddik (righteous person) at this point in time. It would have seemed that this is invalid, because we know that he is a rasha and he has not done anything tangible to demonstrate that he has changed. However, the Gemara rules that this is a valid Kiddushin because perhaps at that time he had thoughts of teshuva. What is noteworthy here, is that in order to properly do teshuva, one must go through a number of stages, including vidui (confession), yet this person clearly did not confess. Yet, the mere fact that he may have decided to change, means that he could change his status from a rasha to a tzaddik in one instant. It seems that his desire to change and grow is the defining factor in his righteousness.

Another interesting example of this idea can be used to answer a question that is asked with regard to a halacha involving Kriat Shema. Throughout the year, after we say the verse of ‘Shema Yisrael, we say the words of, ‘Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso LeOlam Vaed’ quietly. The reason for this is because when Moshe went to Heaven to receive the Torah, he heard the Angels use these words to praise God. In deference to their usage of these words, we also say them as part of the Shema, but because of the lofty, spiritual level of the Angels in comparison to man, we say it quietly. However, on Yom Kippur we also say it out loud because we are on the level of Angels on this holy day. What seems difficult is that we even say ‘Baruch Shem’ out loud on Maariv at the beginning of Yom Kippur, even though we still feel the effects of a very large meal, thus our physicality is every evident, in contrast to the spiritual nature of Angels. We reach the pinnacle of holiness at the end of Yom Kippur, having fasted for the whole day, and we pray the special prayer of Neilah. Yet, immediately after this great peak of spirituality, we then pray Maariv of Motsei Yom Kippur, and we again say ‘Baruch Shem’ quietly, indicating that our spiritual level has fallen back to that of humans. This is difficult, because it seems that we are surely on a higher spiritual level right after Yom Kippur, than at its beginning. The commentaries answer that the key difference in the two times, is that at the beginning of Yom Kippur we are going forward, beginning our path to teshuva and purity, whereas, at the end, we return to our regular situation where we do not have the same opportunities for change. Thus, the defining difference is whether we are moving forward or not.

We have seen that the decisive factor in determining the greatness of man is not perfection, but a desire to improve and learn from our mistakes. May we merit to internalize this lesson.

NOTES

1. This is sometimes, incorrectly described as leprosy but Tzoraat is a totally different disease.
2. Vayikra 13:2.
3. Limmudei Nassan, cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand, shlit’a.
4. Kiddushin, 49b.
5. Which requires giving something worth the value of a perutah and saying that she is mekudeshes (separated) to him with that item.