The Treasure Within: Affliction and Grace

Can there be grace in affliction?

It seems odd to even pose the question. Affliction is, well, affliction. It is, by definition, unsettling, and agonizing. An affliction is not merely misfortune, for misfortune can land on any one of us at any time; misfortune and responding to it is woven into the fabric of being human. But affliction? Affliction carries with it the lash of punishment.

Indeed, Rambam teaches that tzaraas – afflictions – are all divine punishments, primarily for selfish behavior and lashon ha’ra. In the previous parasha, we’ve been forewarned about tzaraas on one’s body and on one’s garments. Now, in Metzora, we discover that tzaraas can also affect one’s house.

Rambam sees an order to these afflictions. He explains that God in His mercy begins by first afflicting one’s house and then his garments. If he still fails to draw the necessary conclusions, lessons and repent, he can be stricken with tzaraas on his own person. That is, the imposition of the afflictions begins with the less severe (house) to the most severe (body). All are divine punishments and, being divine, they exist not just as punishment but punishment for a purpose.

At the least, such suffering should call powerful attention to moral shortcomings.

Straightforward, no? Moral shortcoming equals punishment.

However, when rereading the posuk that teaches about the nega tzaraas ba’bayit it doesn’t appear so quite so straightforward. “When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzaraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession.” (Vayikra 14:34) Rashi, based on Sifra and Vayikra Rabba, explains that when the Canaanite inhabitants realized that the Israelites were going to conquer the Land, they hid their valuables in the walls of their homes. They were determined that their conquerors would not benefit from their possessions.

Once the Jews were in the Land, God wanted them to take possession of this hidden wealth. So, He afflicted the parts of the walls where the riches were. When the tzaraas-affected stones were cut away, as Halacha required, the treasures were revealed for the benefit of the Jews.

Their “reward” was the result of the affliction.

But why bring about such a benefit through pain, angst and anxiety? If it was God’s will that His children acquire these treasures, why the bother of causing affliction to bring about this positive effect?

That we need to ask the question is solely because of the limitations of our humanity, of our finite and selfish view. How could we understand? Our view is, at best, piecemeal. We see and perceive a small fraction of the “present” but so little of the forces that brought us to the present. And despite our dreams and our plans, we are completely blind to what might happen next.

At best, we sometimes get a glimpse of the bigger picture. But even then, what are we to make of it? We are finite creatures in an infinite universe.

We are merely “present.” God is past, present and forever future – haya, hoveh and yiheye. That is not only His name, it is His essence and His truth.

We are limited. We do not want to be limited for were we not limited in our vision and our understanding, suffering would not be suffering. Wasn’t that at the root of Job’s cry to God?

We long for a deeper understanding. Wasn’t that Moshe Rabeinu’s wish?  Just a few short verses after being described as the one and only with whom God spoke “face to face, as a man would speak to his fellow,” Moshe boldly asks God, “Make Your way known to me, so that I may comprehend…”

No! Not even the greatest of the prophets of Israel is granted that. “You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live” (Shemot 33:20) To see God’s “face” is to have a complete and unadulterated perception of God. It is possible, at times and for brief glimpses, to view God “from the back.” But God’s “face,” never.

Chazal (Berachos 7a) suggest that seeing God’s back describes God having shown Moshe the “knot of His Tefillin” – the passages of God’s tefillin, as it were, speak of the greatness and uniqueness of the Jewish People, just as our tefillin speak of God’s greatness. God’s tefillin then, focus on God’s love for His People.

We cannot see His face, but His back? Yes. We can always be reassured of His love for us. That will never stop, even when what we see doesn’t appear that way, as when the stones of our houses are contaminated. We view this as an affliction and punishment only to discover that, when we break away the outer layer of stone, treasure waits for us within.

Yes, we can discover treasures through affliction!

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, was the last rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite his personal loss and grief, he continued to motivate, inspire and comfort his fellow Jews during this great, great darkness. It is beyond our imagination to appreciate that these suffering and oppressed Yidden in the Warsaw Ghetto – starved, beaten and forsaken – made their way to the Rebbe’s tisch to listen to his Torah. Unbelievable!

The talks the Piaseczner gave at these Ghetto tischen were later discovered hidden underground and published in the Sefer Aish Kodesh. Included in these talks was one delivered on Parashat Metzora 1940 as the world raged with fires of unspeakable hatred. In his talk, the Rebbe raised our question. After all, he noted, we know that all that God does to us is for a purpose. Suffering and affliction is done out of His great love for us, for our benefit, even though it might be incomprehensible to us. Remember, we cannot see God’s face, only His back, only the knot of his tefillin attesting to His eternal love for His people.

Still, the Rebbe tells his Warsaw Ghetto Yidden, there is suffering that may very well strike us as impossible to be for our own benefit, “sufferings that are not only physical, but also suffering that causes for us not to learn, not to daven properly,” sufferings that remove us from serving God, the ultimate purpose for our being here. When faced with such atrocities and suffering we can well surmise that God is rejecting us. After all, what explanation can there be for Him to allow such suffering to fall upon us? Wouldn’t it be better to let Him have us suffer in ways that will bring us nearer to Him not distant us from Him?

That is why, the Piaseczner taught, the afflicted house was initially declared by the Kohen to be impure. “The Kohen shall exit from the house …and he shall quarantine the house for a seven-day period” (Shemot 14:38) .

This would certainly be the ultimate rejection – a public humiliation and rejection. God allows all to see the affliction imposed upon this home, to witness the very laws of nature changed to cause this house’s contamination. Crazy! But what else is one to think? The Kohen came and, just like that, the house is quarantined. Certainly, this house and its inhabitant are rejected by God!

But no, they are not. This house tzaraas is the impetus to find the hidden treasure buried there from our conquest of Canaan. Remember, we do not see “the face,” we never see the full picture. It is possible that we never know what rests inside those walls.  We may never know what has been sitting there – within our grasp! – for generations. And we would still never know if not for humiliating suffering of the contamination lurking in our very homes.

So there, at a tisch in the midst of the greatest human suffering imaginable, this heroic Rebbe told his people that house tzaraas serves as the archetype of yissurim (suffering) so that we may know that all afflictions, even those that seem to be God’s rejection of us, have a purpose that, while not understandable now, could well bring us great benefits.

It may take generations to discover those benefits – remember how many generations there were between the Amorites hiding their riches in the walls of the Land that was to be conquered by the Israelites and their discovery! – but they will be discovered.

“It’s hard,” the Rebbe said, “hard to perform even simple mitzvos here. But Hashem has not forsaken you. The benefit is not yet revealed.”

The Rebbe concluded that it is for this reason that whereas in the nega of the body or the clothing the victim comes to the Kohen and declares or visually shows the Kohen, “Look this is my nega. Is it tzaraas or not?” When it came to the house nega, he may not factually declare to the Kohen there is a nega in this house, but rather he announces, k’nega nirah li ba’bayit – “Something like an affliction has appeared to me in the house” (Shemot 14:35).

He does not say that is an actual affliction, because he is aware that although it appears to him to be an affliction, it is also for a Divine purpose. It is impossible to imagine that what Hashem brings upon us is solely for our detriment. We may not know now but there will come a time – who knows when? – when we will uncover treasures in the midst of our contamination. And so, the statement, k’nega – it appears like a nega. But who knows? Never rush to pass judgment on God’s intentions or motivations! For this reason, Rashi quotes Chazal that teach that even if the one who saw the house nega is a Talmid Chochom and proficient in negaim and tzaraas, he may not pass judgment. For no matter how wise, no one is an expert in God’s ways.

We may cry tears of grief, our suffering may seem beyond our ability to bear but who knows, when our tears have dried, and even as the suffering still lingers treasures may be uncovered. The Rebbe taught, “Because the man himself cannot say if it is indeed a nega or a pega; all he can say is that to him it seems like a nega. The truth is it may be a tova, a goodness, that God may well do with us.”

Who among us can know?

Up until this point, Hungary had seemed to be spared the horrors of the holocaust. Jewish Polish soldiers passed by the town and shared with Zayde Shlomo Z’L the atrocities they had witnessed all around them – round ups, trains, transports, death. The news was as frightening to hear as it was to report. Zayde Shlomo sat at the head of his Seder table, which he sensed could very well be the last Seder table they shared, and his heart and mind were focused on saving and salvaging. What to do? What to do?

One of his younger daughters, Etu, a dynamo, thought of anything and everything she could that might help. She went up on a roof where she artistically, graphically, brilliantly forged five documents, replicating printed documents with her own steady hand. When she was finished, she brought them to her father.

The kind, wise man was at a loss. What was he to do? His family was at stake. Five documents could save the five kinder, my wife’s siblings. But what of their mother? What of my wife’s mother? Or her father, already taken to the labor camps.

Reb Shlomo’s other children, including Etu, took matters into their own hands. They surreptitiously found their way to a safe house in Budapest. They somehow managed to survive, eventually arriving in Israel. Those for whom Etu forged papers…? Reb Shlomo made his decision; the why’s or wherefore’s will never be known. The five children and their mother, Clary’s mother and siblings, eventually arrived in Auschwitz; the children up in the chimney’s smoke and the mother surviving the years of torture, deprivation and suffering.

And Zayde Shlomo? He succumbed on the death march. There is no record if he was ever buried. As for the five life-saving papers? Reb Shlomo gave them to his best friend, Shia Hersh, with which he was able to save his family and eventually come to America.

The tears have never dried up for Clary’s five siblings, consumed by those fires in 1943… but now let’s turn the calendar ahead to 17 Adar II 5779 – March 24, 2019. On that day, Shia Hersh’s great-great grandson and name sake of Zayde Shlomo’s best friend, Shia Hersh, married Chaya Tzirel, my wife Clary’s granddaughter, great-great granddaughter of Zayde Shlomo Z’L.

Can there be any doubt that Zayde Shlomo was dancing non-stop at this Chasuna in Brooklyn, NY? And don’t you think that had the Piaseczner Rebbe been asked to speak at the Sheva Brachos instead of me, he would have reminded both families and all assembled that the house tzaraas is the impetus for finding the hidden treasures, the blessings.

All afflictions, even those that seem to imply a Divine rejection, have a purpose that will ultimately cause us benefit.

Hashem had not forsaken them.

He has not forsaken us.

Rabbi Safran’s recently published volume on all parshiyot haTorah available on Amazon