Of Worms and Greatness


A teacher wanted to demonstrate the evils of liquor to his fifth-grade class. He conducted an experiment with a glass of water, a glass of whiskey and two worms. The teacher put the first worm in the glass of water. The worm wiggled about, happy as can be. Then he put the second worm in the whiskey. It writhed painfully, sank to the bottom and died.

“Now, what lesson can we learn from this experiment?” he asked the class.

One bright student responded, “Drink whiskey and you won’t get worms.”

One often sees the world through the lenses of his or her own leanings. Our powerful intellects can serve to justify and spin most anything. Ultimate truth, goodness and our essential purpose can become casualties of our own bias. But what are we to do, how can we possibly escape our very humanity?

A simple answer emerges from our Torah portion, Tazria. In it, the Torah states that if one has a white blotch on one’s skin, he may have tzaraat, a dreaded metaphysical disease (often poorly translated as leprosy) which our tradition links to seven social sins, most prominent among them being lashon hara (malicious speech). The expert Kohen (priest) is empowered as the ultimate arbiter to determine whether one possesses tzaraat. Forced isolation, among a host of other consequences, awaited the confirmed tzaraat recipient’s fate. The consequent fiscal repercussions, coupled with the social shame, made this disease anathema at worst — and simply very unwelcome at best.

But what if a Kohen has the symptoms of tzaarat himself? Can he self-diagnose?

“All blemishes may one assess,” the Mishnah proclaims unequivocally, “save for his own.”

Thus, the law cautions that the expert in parsing and evaluating the minutiae of tzaraat may not examine himself; rather, even he must seek another expert’s authority.

Perhaps the simple but critical point that the Torah is teaching us is that to emerge from our own natural biases, we must never be too big to consult — the teacher, the sage, the friend; we must be humble enough to seek out that unvarnished opinion.

And, yet, a troubling question arises. Does Judaism not trust its adherents? Is it not the case that any Jew sufficiently familiar with ritual law may deem his or her chicken kosher — and then eat it too? One may even decide personal questions of family purity. Incredibly, one may even determine that his money is “kosher.” Apparently, even in the face of fiscal, physical or material bias, Judaism optimistically asserts that we can be true to ourselves, assess our biases and compensate accordingly. Why then may the expert Kohen not decide his fate?

Perhaps the solution lies in the following story.

In the court of the Beit Halevi, (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1820-1892), two litigants shouted and cursed each other. Even as the litigation ended, the degree of enmity and vehemence did not dissipate, nor did it seem commensurate to the relatively small disputed amount. The losing party left with a few choice words for the members of the court. Beit Halevi’s son, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, was stunned: How is it that this very same loser, just a few weeks earlier, had accepted with much greater equanimity the declaration that his animal was nonkosher, resulting in a far greater fiscal loss?

The sagacious Beit Halevi turned to his son and responded: “A decision about the kosher status of an animal does not reflect personally upon the inquirer. If the animal is not kosher, the questioner is not offended nor insulted. In a litigated monetary dispute, the inference of a rendered decision is an implication of misbehavior.”

In other words, as long as I’m not wrong, I don’t mind paying!

In our service to God, it’s never really about the money; we can and often do transcend our material selves. However, the moment that our character, our foibles, our very selves are thrust under the microscope, we begin to weave a complex web of defense mechanisms to avert the painful truths that necessitate real personal introspection. It is in this realm that we are paralyzed by personal bias and must rely upon the insight of others.

Which leads us to one of the great and humbling truths of the spiritual seeker: If we are not ready to face introspectional pain, there will be no spiritual gain.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.