The parshiyos that we read this past Shabbos, Tazria-M’tzora, are difficult to expound upon. They almost entirely deal with the now long-obsolete matter of the skin disease that afflicts a slanderer. His body, his house, and his belongings can be determined to be infected with tzaraas by a local kohen. His purification involves being banished outside the “camp of Israel” until pronounced ready to return. As the Torah states, “He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (VaYikra 13:46). As Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains, one of the worst punishments a person can face is isolation, being cut off from our fellow human beings. Don’t we know that all too well!
When it comes to the mystical purification process of the m’tzora, the Torah prescribes, among other things, the taking of “cedar wood, crimson thread, and hyssop” (VaYikra 14:4). Rashi explains the symbolism behind this unusual ritual: The cedar – a mighty tree – represents the haughtiness of the slanderer who now has become humbled like the little red thread and the blade of hyssop.
If humility is the key to the rehabilitation of the m’tzora, then why have the proud cedar wood as part of that process? The Chidushei HaRim, the first Gerer Rebbe, deals with this. He suggests profoundly that this is the flip side of the humility equation. Sometimes people refuse to be involved in community projects involving tz’dakah and chesed with the excuse that it is not within their personality to be active or take a lead role. They are too humble. This, says the Chidushei HaRim, is misplaced humility. Here the humble have to be encouraged to stand tall and erect, like the cedar tree. The ordinary must rise to the occasion. They must become extraordinary.
We have seen this idea develop in our Orthodox community – in Queens and beyond. Otherwise ordinary people have jumped at the opportunity to help others – and in amazing fashion. First to come to mind is Hatzalah. These incredible volunteers, who give selflessly of themselves during the year, have proven even more so how caring and brave they are throughout this awful coronavirus pandemic. They have jumped into the raging sea to save whomever they can, at all hours of the day and night, while putting their own well-being at risk. They deserve a parade down Main Street when this is all over.
Then there are those who have volunteered to arrange for shopping for the elderly or home-bound. ZeloZeh was created just for that purpose. Their chat reveals how many volunteers they have who instantly respond to any request. Chaveirim, whom we know to change tires and charge dead batteries, is wonderful for that purpose alone. But during this crisis, they too have risen to a new height and have also volunteered to do shopping. “Chickens for Shabbos” has raised thousands of dollars for cash and food distribution. (Our Young Israel is proud to be a partner in that effort.) Local politicians have also made heroic efforts to get things done via their connections. Shmira, the volunteer patrol group, has led the way in distributing crucially-needed oxygen for patients in need. And teachers: People have no idea the super-human effort that teachers are making to continue teaching and preparing for their students. My wife teaches first grade in the Bais Yaakov several hours daily via Zoom. She is much more exhausted teaching electronically than she is in person. The same is true of all teachers. Cedar trees!
Organizations have also risen to the occasion. The RCA, as I have stated in my previous article, took an early lead in addressing the halachic and social issues of this crisis. The OU is constantly sending important updated information as well as a daily T’hilim conference call. The Agudah has been arranging for regular Internet-based shiurim and yarchei kallah, as well as their own updates.
Perhaps among the most important things being advocated by the Agudah the last week or so is the drive to get Orthodox Jews to voluntarily donate blood plasma offered by survivors of COVID-19. This plasma can help develop critical anti-bodies to combat this disease. In fact, some publications not known to be Orthodox-friendly, such as The Forward, have given extensive coverage to this effort. A stunning 50 percent of the plasma donors in New York City have been coming from the minority Orthodox community.
We in Kew Gardens Hills can be proud that one of our own has played a significant role in this campaign. Mordechai Serle, son of Yaakov and Atara Serle, has been extremely instrumental with the Agudah in coordinating this life-saving effort. What a Kiddush Hashem!
The humble hyssops have become mighty cedars. They probably don’t even realize it. But we do. Many, many thanks to all of you!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.