By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"And it will be, when you arrive in the land... I will place a blemish in a house in the land of your heritage" [Vayikra 14:34]. "This is as is written, 'But this is good for Yisrael, G-d is good to those whose hearts are pure' [Tehillim 73:1]. We might think that this is for everybody, but it is written, for those whose hearts are pure, referring to those whose hearts are pure with mitzvot." That is how Midrash Rabba begins its commentary on this week's Torah portion. It seems that this is an attempt to answer a question. In general, we have been taught that the word "vahayah" – it will be – denotes joy. How can the Torah begin a passage about impure blemishes with an indication of happiness? The answer is that for those whose hearts are pure with mitzvot this blemish brings a benefit in that the person is immediately punished for his or her sin.
The Sefat Emet explains this Midrash with the aid of another one (see his commentary for 5644 – 1884). "At first He thought to create the world with a trait of strict law. But He saw that such a world would not be able to survive, and He tempered it with a trait of mercy." [Bereishit Rabba 12:15]. Thus God's original idea was to operate the world in accordance with strict justice, representing absolute truth. But in order to take reality into account, the Holy One, Blessed be He, also blended in the trait of mercy.
However, there remain some people who follow the original plan and are led through the strict rule of halacha. These are Bnei Yisrael, who were given the Torah.
With respect to the verse, "You limited me back and front" [Tehillim 139:5], the sages wrote, "If a person has merits, he is told that he came before all the creatures. If he does not have merit, he is told that even the mosquito preceded him." When a person acts in accordance with justice and truth, he belongs to the world which preceded creation – the world of the Torah, which existed before the acts of creation. Therefore, when he has merits he takes precedence over creation. But when he does not have merits and is led by the animal instincts of his body, he is told that the mosquito was created before he was. One who does not have the merit of behaving according to the trait of justice is treated with mercy, as is written, "He has pity on all His creatures" [Tehillim 145:9]. In this case there is no difference between man and the animals. In fact, creatures without wisdom are in greater need of mercy, and therefore the mosquito comes before man.
The Talmud teaches us that when Moshe asked to see Rabbi Akiva's reward, the Almighty showed him how the rabbi's flesh was torn apart with an iron comb. Moshe cried out, "Is this Torah and is this its reward?" And the Holy One, Blessed be He, replied, "Be silent! This is the thought that came to me." The SHELA explains that what the Almighty thought to do was to create the world based on the rules of justice, as we discussed above. The Holy One, Blessed be He, replied to Moshe that Rabbi Akiva lived in the world of thought and was therefore led according to the rule of justice, while Moshe, whose life corresponded to mercy in addition to law, could not understand the path of justice by which Rabbi Akiva was judged.
This also explains the Midrash discussed above, that "this is good for Yisrael, G-d is good..." The word for G-d in this verse, "Elohim," denotes the trait of justice. And as soon as they sin and speak slander the matter can be recognized in the blemishes in their skin, their clothing, or their homes. And the result is that they can purify themselves quickly.
At the end of the laws of tzara'at, it is written, "Vehizartem – Teach Bnei Yisrael to stay away from their impurities" [Vayikra 15:31]. The first word has a connotation of keeping separate from matters of impurity, but it is also related to a "nezer," a crown, as is the word "nazir ," one who abstains from wine. By keeping away from matters of impurity Yisrael become wrapped in an exalted crown.