Monday, March 31, 2008


Man and the Mosquito
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
The Torah Portion Metzora is, at first glance, a portion concerning dermatology and various skin diseases such as leprosy. However, in the opinion of the sages, this is not the main topic. Our skin is a defensive wrapping that separates what is within us from what is outside our body. Therefore, say the sages, skin ailments are not only physiological but also expressions of defects in our inner, spiritual state.

Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nahmani speaks in the name of Rabbi Yochanan of seven evils that cause these skin diseases: gossip (Lashon HaRa), bloodshed (Shefichut Damim), vain oaths (Shevuat Shav), forbidden sexual relations (Giluy Arayot), haughtiness (Gasut HaRuach), robbery (Gezel) and envy (Tzarut Ayin) (Arachin 16a).

Today I would like to speak about one of those seven sins: haughtiness (Gasut HaRuach), which lies at the root of all other vices.

Unfortunately, we all know this vice, as chutzpah is also haughtiness. We all know that this is the most striking negative trait of our Israeli society. We know that the world has English tea, French perfume, Argentinian Dulce de Leche and Israeli chutzpah. The chutzpah is a blue and white product, made in Israel.

What is chutzpah? How can we define this well-known word?

It is the overbearing confidence of someone who thinks that all right and justice are his alone. Such a person feels that he is the centre of the world, that only he counts.

Actually, man is born with this trait. We are all descendants of Adam, who was the centre of the world and bequeathed this trait to all mankind.

In the Tractate Sanhedrin (38a) there is an interesting discussion on the fact of Adam being created on the eve of the Sabbath. If man is the crown of creation, why was he created at the end of the process and not at the beginning?

Among the interesting answers to this question, I like the following one: "So that if man becomes arrogant, I will tell him, 'the mosquito was created before you'". As soon as man becomes conceited and haughtiness enters deep into his soul, it is possible to remind him that even the mosquito preceded him in the order of creation.

Rabbi Raphael of Barshad says: I can try to justify and find excuses for all sins except that of haughtiness.

When I am asked in the heavenly court, "Did you study Torah?" I will answer, "To my sorrow I was ignorant and did not know how to study."

They will ask, "Did you observe the fasts?" and I will answer, "I was weak and did not have the strength."

"And did you give money to charity?" they will ask and I will answer, "To my regret, I could not. I was poor and needy."

In that case, they will say: "You were ignorant, you had no strength, and you had no money. Why were you insolent? Why did you have such conceit and chutzpah?"

To that, says Rabbi Raphael, I will have no answer.

The Torah warns us against this unjustifiable vice, and the destructive power of haughtiness. Let us always remember that even the mosquito preceded us in the order of creation.

Monday, March 17, 2008


G-d humbles the proud

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Parashat Tzav begins with a description of the kohen's workday. His day begins with the removal of the ashes of the previous day's sacrifices from the altar.

Why is this commanded as the first act of the kohen's day? What is its purpose? Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, in his book Hovot ha-Levavot ["Duties of the Hearts"] wrote: "...and the Creator commanded him to remove the ashes every single day to make him humble and to remove haughtiness from his heart."

Just imagine: the kohen arrives at the Temple in the morning and feels very special. He is a member of the elite. He may even feel that he enjoys some genetic superiority over the rest of the nation. Therefore, his first daily task humbles this potential pride. (This is one of the Divine attributes of which we read following the Shema Yisrael in the morning service: "God humbles the proud and raises the lowly").

Arrogance is without a doubt one of the more dangerous human attributes, and it is uniquely human. There is nothing like it in the animal kingdom. Animals may be loyal or timid, we may find courage and even self-sacrifice, but arrogance is exclusively human.

There is a fable that tells of a song competition in the jungle. Each animal was given a ballot to vote for the winning competitor, and a giant ballot box was placed in the middle of the jungle. Then each animal -including the human- ascended to the podium, in alphabetical order, to sing.

The time came to count the votes. The elephant brought the ballot box to the center of the podium, and the owl began to call out the votes. The first vote was cast for the donkey, so was the second, and the third. There was silence in the jungle. The donkey was nice, but lacked charisma. The donkey delivered a poor performance in its hoarse, wobbly voice. Yet the donkey won all the votes, and all understood why. All the animals thought that the donkey could never win the competition, so they all voted for it, all but two. The donkey did not vote for itself, but cast its vote for the nightingale. And the human voted for himself.

The kohen may delude himself into thinking that he is supreme by virtue of his closeness to G-d's Temple. He may conclude that all depends upon him, and that without his help Israel cannot realize G-d's intended purpose. The point of the mitzvah of removing the ashes is to maintain the kohen's sense of proportion, and to check any delusions of grandeur. It internalizes the message that he, too, is one of the people, and his position is the same as theirs.