Get Off Your High Horse
In my MythBusting course, one of the topics I addressed was the mistaken idea that “Tzara’at was a punishment for lashon hara only!” While that certainly is an opinion in Chazal, it’s only one of twenty!
ABOVE THEIR STATION
Let’s discuss one of those other opinions: tzara’at was a punishment for gasut ha-ruach, arrogance. Rav Amnon Bazak points out that the tzaraat stories of Miriam (Numbers 12:10-11), Gechazi (II Kings 5:27), and Uziyahu (II Chronicles 26:19-20) share a common denominator:
[T]hey present a person who aspired to a higher spiritual level than the one he/she had attained: Miriam was jealous of Moshe, Gechazi presented himself as Elisha’s equal, and Uziyahu wanted to serve as a kohen. Each was punished, measure for measure, by ending up on a lower level than the one where he/she began.
Notice the equation of arrogance and too-high aspirations. Similarly, many expressions associate arrogance with feeling high up. For example: “all high and mighty,” “with his nose in the air,” “looking down his nose at you,” “talking down at you.” Where do we find this association in Torah sources?
CEDAR VS. WORM
Cedar wood – because tzaraat comes [as a punishment] for arrogance.
Crimson wool (shni tolaat) and hyssop – What is the remedy so that [the metzora] can be healed? He should lower himself from his haughtiness, like a worm (tolaat) and like hyssop.
In other words, the symbols of lowliness – a worm and a low-growing hyssop – are needed to counteract the symbol of arrogance, namely a cedar. The cedar tree is both tall and ramrod straight, so it represents a high-and-mighty attitude. The Gemara uses the same image when introducing a story of arrogance and repentance: “A person should always be gentle like a reed and not unyielding like a cedar.”
THE FENCED-IN TOWER
That story is fascinating in its use of height to illustrate arrogance. We’ll quote the first part:
Once R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon was coming from his teacher’s house in Migdal Gedor, riding on a donkey. He was traveling along the bank of the river with a feeling of great joy and a sense of arrogance, because he had learned a great deal of Torah.
A very ugly person happened upon him. The ugly person said: “How are you, Rebbe?”
R. Elazar did not respond. [Rather,] he said: “Empty one – how ugly this fellow is! Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?”
The ugly person responded: “I don’t know, but you should go to the craftsman who made me and tell him how ugly is the vessel that he made.”
The Gemara doesn’t pull any punches in describing R. Elazar’s attitude as Torah-induced arrogance. (I call it yeshivish ga’avah, the temptation to feel holier-than-thou when learning Torah.) This was reflected in his lofty position – on a donkey, even higher than usual because it was above a low riverbank. And where had he been learning? The Maharal says there’s no such place as Migdal Gedor. Rather, the Gemara invents a name – the Fenced-In Tower. In contemporary terms, that’s like saying, “I’m a graduate of Gated Community College, part of Ivory Tower University!”
WHY FALLING IS FUNNY
As we have seen, people associate arrogance with feeling high up. Why?
The one time my wife and I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we attended a fascinating lecture-performance by Jos Houben, who has been acclaimed as one of contemporary theater’s greatest clowns. His theory was that standing upright is essential to our sense of dignity. When we veer from “verticality” by tripping or falling, we lose that dignity. Much of physical comedy has to do with the exaggerated portrayal of that loss (which Houben illustrated with pratfalls). In a comedy duo, the one who retains his dignity is called the straight man.
GET DOWN FROM THERE
This explains why, when R. Elazar repented, he got down from his “high horse” and lay down on the ground. To make up for his highfalutin sin, he needed to be as low as possible. Similarly, to make up for feeling like a cedar, a metzora needed to feel like a worm. Tzaraat no longer exists, but avoiding arrogance requires constant vigilance.