Written by: Rabbi Avrhom S. Moller
“And the man with the leprous curse shall have tattered clothes, his hair should be wildly grown, he shall hood his face to his lips and call out, ‘I am impure, I am impure.’ ” (Vayikra 13:45)
This chilling description of the metzorah, leper, who is cast out of society is quite depressing. If we were to encounter such an unfortunate on the outskirts of our city, we would probably give him wide berth. However, when we analyze this description more carefully with the help of our sages we see that the Torah is teaching us some important lessons for those who are suffering and those who are aware of their suffering.
The metzorah is suffering through this ordeal because of his anti-social behavior. The Gemara in Erchin 16a tells us that tzoraas is caused by defamation of others. The offender is now receiving a very public and humiliating divine punishment from which he cannot escape. It is his role to accept it with humility and contrition by acting as a mourner (there are many parallels between the metzorah’s behavior and that of the aveil, mourner). This invokes Divine mercy since the purpose of this punishment is to get the person to reflect on his bad ways and to repent. A person who is accustomed to negate others will have difficulty accepting his own shortcomings and will need to work hard to attain real contrition.
What can we do to help this person who has been cast out? We understand that he has been punished in a very harsh way but that being judgmental is the wrong thing to do. When we see a person suffering, it is wrong to suggest that we know the reason or to tell the person to repent. He needs our empathy and support, not our judgment. When he cries out that he is impure, it is so that we have pity on him and we pray for him. (See Shabbos 67a.)
When Iyov is visited with terrible suffering and his friends try to explain Hashem’s reasons for his suffering, he is very hurt. Hashem tells them that they have sinned in doing so. Friends are there to empathize, to be helpful and sometimes to be silent and pray that this person’s suffering comes to a happy ending. It is not one’s place to explain or to suggest to the sufferer what he could or should do differently.
There is a story told about a young widow in Yerushalayim who lost her husband suddenly and was devastated. The Tzaddik of Yerushalyim, Reb Aryeh Levine Z’L, came to pay his condolences. He was so devastated that he could not utter a word. He simply sat and cried. This unfortunate woman later related that his visit brought her more comfort than all of the well-intended words of comfort and reassurance that she heard during the Shiva.
As adults we need to model this empathy in word and deed. If our children see us as non-judgmental people with the ability to empathize and support people who have made poor choices but are ready to change, they will emulate that behavior and make this a world in which people can redeem themselves.