Between the Lines—Metzora

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה יח

דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם איש כי יהיה זב מבשרו וגו' הה"ד (קהלת יב) וזכור את בוראיך בימי בחורותיך, תנן עקביא בן מהללאל אומר הסתכל בשלשה דברים ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה, דע מאין באת מטפה סרוחה, ולאן אתה הולך לעפר רמה ותולעה ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקב"ה.

Leviticus Rabbah 18:1

"Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When any man has a discharge from his member, he is impure" (Leviticus 15:2). This [the lesson to be derived from this] is indicated in what is written, "Remember then your Creator in the days of your youth" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). We have learned in the Mishnah (Avot 3:1): "Akabiah ben Mahalaleel said: Apply your mind to three considerations, and you will not come into the power of sin. Know whence you came: from a fetid drop; where you are going: to a place of dust, of worm, and of maggot; and before Whom you are destined to give an account of reckoning: before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

Rabbi Morris Shapiro (z"l) spent his last years teaching in the JTS beit midrash. He was a Holocaust survivor and arguably one of the best talmudic minds of his generation, and we who had the privilege of learning with him here knew well that one of his most frequently cited teachings was the phrase this midrash brings to mind: know before Whom you stand.

We live precariously. On the one hand, the midrash enjoins, we should live with the sense of responsibility and dignity that comes from knowing that we were created in the image of God and that this God-Presence holds us accountable for our actions in life. On the other hand, we are to live humbly, with the shame of having been born from our parents' sexual urges, and know that in the end—no matter how dignified a life we lead—we will decompose along with all natural matter.

The lesson is in the balancing act between the two poles of pride and humility, of ego and humiliation. Rabbi Shapiro's life was one of great learning and yet, incredible modesty; of terrible horror and yet, kindness and love. I have to imagine that, as he hid in the woods of Poland as a boy, he kept himself going with the certainty that God was in fact watching over him; and that, later in life, when he felt moments of personal glory he tempered himself by remembering "whence [he] came."

As we work our way toward Pesah, cleaning out our pantries and homes of all that is stale and seeking spiritual renewal with the birth of spring, may we each find a way to rebalance the precarious perch we have come to settle into and internalize the midrash's invitation to hold within ourselves both the shame and pride that is being human.