“If a person has on the skin of his body… lesions of Tzara’as [a supernatural skin affliction]… He should be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests [for examination].” Leviticus 13:2.
“Rendering a person unclean or clean can only be through the pronouncement of a Kohen, a priest.” (Rashi).
I recently spent a phenomenal Shabbos with an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor.
She told me of her father, shot dead by the Nazis just two days before liberation because he shared some of his meager rations with a fellow victim in Mauthaussen. She told of her mother from that vanished world, pious and righteous, who sacrificed so much for her daughter. “I miss her every day, still,” she said.
The gas in Auschwitz choked her mother to death.
I asked her if anyone ever prayed in the barracks. “Of course,” she said. “I never missed “Modeh Ani. There was a girl who slept close to me who knew the entire Tehillim, all 150 chapters of Psalms, by heart. She used to say the words as we were lying on those wood shelves they called beds. We would repeat those words after her.”
Can anyone imagine thanking God for returning their soul to hell? We can’t even imagine the hell of Auschwitz, let alone praying and thanking God for it. But that is what this woman did. Every day, never missing one.
At one point she said: “I saw “Nissim” [miracles] in Auschwitz all the time! God was there always. I saw it!”
Not everyone there felt this way. This woman’s sister, whom she nursed throughout their experience, did not want to hear of Judaism after liberation. And I have no doubt that when she arrived before the heavenly throne two years ago, carrying that tattoo as a blazing torch, she and God Almighty patched things up.
Some live their lives seeing it; others do not. Some cannot. And it is not for us to judge.
It reminded me of a beautiful story the midrash relates for this week’s parshah, Tazria.
There was once a Kohen who was an expert at examining Tzara’as, the extinct skin ailment discussed in this week’s Torah portion. This disease was neither painful nor contagious but a result of not behaving properly. Some wrongly translate this disease as leprosy. The Tzara’as disease was diagnosed when the kohen observed the hair in the afflicted area. The Kohen of our story was extremely poor, and decided to leave the Holy Land to seek a livelihood elsewhere.
Before leaving, he said to his wife, “Let me teach you the principles of examining Tzara’as so that you can advise people who will come to our house in my absence. You can tell whether someone is diseased or healthy by examining the grooves under the hair. Each hair is nurtured in its own groove. If you find that the groove under the hair has dried up, it is a symptom of disease.”
The wife wondered at these words. “If God created a source of nourishment for each individual hair, He must, all the more so, have provided for you, a human being and head of a family who has to support his children,” she said. “Don’t leave the Holy Land! Stay here and the Creator will certainly provide for you here, too!”
The Kohen listened to his wife (always a good idea…) and stayed in the Holy Land. Soon he found a good source of livelihood.
It is a matter of perspective. A Kohen must be the one to proclaim the status of the metzora (the person with the Tzara’as malady). The sages describe the Kohen as genetically kind and loving. Through the loving eyes of a Kohen, a fellow person is seen in a different light. Sometimes, though, the same Kohen who is so adept at looking at someone else that way does not look at himself with those eyes!
All Holocaust survivors are very special people. We look at them as heroes. We can learn something positive from all of them.
And from those who managed to see God through the wall of utter evil, we also can learn how to see our way through things like diseases, ailments, problems, terror and difficulties, Heaven forbid. For every hair has its life-giving groove. And every person has one as well.