By Rabbi Nosson Greenberg
In this week’s parsha the Bnai Yisrael are instructed in the many laws involving the impurity known as tzara’as. This impurity can afflict the skin of an individual, his clothing or the walls of his house. Regarding the latter, one who suspects that his property has been afflicted, he is instructed by the Torah to go and “Vehigid laKohain laimor, “Knegah nirah li baboyis” “- “Tell the Kohain saying, “[Something that looks] like an affliction I have seen in my house”” (Vayikra, 14:35). Rashi, quoting Chazal tells us that even if one is knowledable in the laws of tzara’as and is sure that his house is halachically afflicted, should still not say to the Kohain “Negah”– “there is a definite affliction,” rather he should say [as the passuk directs him] k’negah, that he has something in his house that may be an affliction. There are many ways to understand this Chazal: for example, the Mizrachi says it is teaching us refinement, that one should never announce that something is impure unless one is forced to do so. The Maharal (Gur Aryeh) sees it as a lesson in honesty. For technically as long as a Kohain has not officially proclaimed the affliction as halachic tzara’as, it is not an affliction (just a stain). So to say a definitive “I have an affliction” would be an untruth. But according to all these understandings one must ask why the Torah sees fit to wait until the last of the different types of tzara’as– the house affliction- to teach us the lesson of “k’negah”? Couldn’t it have relayed the same message during the skin or clothing affliction?
Perhaps we can offer a new understanding of the lesson of k’negah that would do away with this difficulty. Tzara’as, as we know, is an affliction that befalls a Yid for any one of several sins, most popularly the nefarious lashon hora – evil speech i.e. gossip and slander. Picture the scene if you will, when Yankel wakes up one morning and finds a very unhealthy white patch on his arm with all the trappings of a bona fide negah. He quickly will put two & two together that he’s been a naughty boy. The Torah does not have a problem with him running around announcing to the local Kohain “Look, a negah, I’m afflicted”. For he is denunciating no one other than himself as a sinner with his clothing, But let’s say he sees a green or red blotch on his dining-room wall. Any announcement that it’s a sure negah will not only be casting aspersions on his own spiritual shortcomings but also on every-one else in the household, including his wife and kids. Especially his wife, about who Chazal say “Baiso zu ishto” -”One’s house is one’s wife.” She’s definitely going to be taking it personally, blaming herself for her dining room being shaded like a poinsettia. Says the Torah to the ba’al habayis, let’s hold off with the hyperbole, tone it down to k’negah. And even if you are a learned individual, one well versed in the 14 perakim of Meseches Nega’im and you are 100% sure the Kohain is going to say Negah, let’s wait until he says it. Don’t cause early consternation to the household if you do not have to.
There is another difficulty with the above-mentioned passuk. “Vehigid laKohain laimor…” – ‘Tell the Kohain saying…” The passuk could have just said “Tell the Kohain”. Why does the Torah add the word laimor-saying? [See Ohr HaChaim for a lengthy explanation.]
According to our analysis of the reason behind the word k’negah we can say as follows: When Hashem gave the Torah to the Yidden He told Moshe “ko somar levais Yaakov vesagaid livnai Yisrael” – “This is what you should say to the house of Yaakov and what you should tell to the sons of Yisrael”. Rashi, quoting the Mechilta explains that the first half of Hashem’s directive where He uses the word somar He is telling Moshe to address the womenfolk. The latter part of the directive where the word sagaid is used is how Moshe should address the men. Both verbs mean to talk but there is a fundamental difference. Somar is a much softer way of speaking than is sagaid. Hashem is thus telling Moshe that the same Torah has to be presented in a different manner to man & to woman. A woman understands and responds to a softer manner of speech, whereas a man can stomach and even appreciate stronger tones.
Let us go back to our passuk. The Torah instructs the man who owns the house to go and consult with a Kohain about the toxic growth on his wall. As a man he will come with the intent of “vehigid” – to say it the way it is. It’s a negah, he’ll accept it and take it like a man. Says the Torah, not so fast, sonny. There are other people in the house, especially the rebbetzin who will struggle with this intense straight-to-the-point delivery of her husband. Says the Torah “laimor”, Tone it down and be more tactful. “K’negah”, maybe it was an affliction, maybe not.
I am reminded of the famous joke where a Captain called in his Sergeant. “Sarge, I just got a message that Private Jones’ mother died yesterday. Better go tell him and send him in to see me.”
So the Sergeant calls for his morning formation and lines up all the troops. “Listen up, men,” says the Sergeant. “Johnson, report to the mess hall for KP. The rest of you men report to the Motor Pool for maintenance. Oh by the way, Jones, your mother died, report to the commander.”
Later that day the Captain called the Sergeant into his office. “Hey, Sarge, that was a pretty cold way to inform Jones his mother passed. Couldn’t you be a bit more tactful, next time?”
Sarge promised he would. Sometime later, the Captain called the Sergeant in again with, “Sarge, I just got a telegram. Private Pappareli’s mother died. You’d better go tell him and send him in to see me. But this time be more tactful.”
So the Sergeant calls for his morning formation. “Ok, men, fall in and listen up. Everybody with a mother take two steps forward – NOT SO FAST, PAPPARELI!”
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.