So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass.

The same, asserts Rav Dessler, is true for the milchemes hayetzer-our wars with our own evil inclinations.  Nature and nurture, education, societal norms, socioeconomic and psychological challenges all work together together to limit the scope of our Free-Will.  We exercise our bechirah-Free-Will, within the parameters of what he terms our bechirah points, i.e. the several metaphysical battlefronts upon which the war of Good vs. Evil is fought on any given day or at any given moment.  All the rest is, at least for the moment, firmly in the grasp of either Good or Evil. (Michtav M’Eliyahu vol. I page 113)

E.g. Whether or not to learn complex and subtle halachic issues with great concentration and intensity for 19 hours, or merely for 18 hours a day, may have been the bechirah point for Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, but it isn’t for 99% of us. This level of choice is stratospheric and considerably higher than what we are capable of choosing to do. For now; it is firmly under the control of our Yetzer haRa-inclination to evil.   On the other hand whether or not to assault or pickpocket anonymous and innocent strangers in a subway car or on a darkened street may be the bechirah point for an impoverished, substance-abusing addict who grew up as a member of the urban underclass, but it isn’t for 99% of us. This level of choice is subterranean and considerably lower than what we are capable of choosing to do. For now; it is firmly under the control of our Yetzer Tov-inclination to good.

The second Izhbitzer teaches that HaShem created and consistently administers the world in a way that the spheres of Good and Evil are essentially of equal strength and in balance with one another so as to make human bechirah possible.  If a person chas v’chalilah-Heaven forefend, has thoughts, drives and desires that are malicious and antisocial HaShem controls and manipulates variables so that he also entertains thoughts and desires that serve as impediments to his antisocial ones, that allow him to feel revolted by Evil and that motivate him to choose Good.  If the human soul/psyche were a parliamentarian government consisting of 100 seats, these seats would be equally divided 50-50 between “the Party of Good” and “the Party of Evil”.  When exercising ones bechirah the person assumes the role of “Speaker of the House” who gets to cast the deciding, tiebreaking vote.

However there are times and circumstances in everyone’s life where the elections seem to have been rigged and when the Party of Evil occupies every last seat in the parliament or, at least, has a majority large enough to repulse any legislative challenges.  In these situations the bechirah endowed human being confronts an evil that is both an irresistible force and an immovable object.  The person feels helpless to resist and is coerced into doing something that, had it been done by another person, he would have immediately identified and condemned as an act of the Evil. In Desslerian terms such a person has come face to face with enemy-occupied, uncontested territory, with morality and ethics that lie far beyond the boundaries of his own bechirah points.

Cognizant of this we need to develop a more flexible lexicon to classify the categories of Good and Evil.  If we agree to define Good as whatever is consistent with HaShems Will and Evil as whatever opposes or seems to thwart kivyachol-as it were, HaShems Will and if we also recognize that some human thought, speech and deed that apparently seem evil are, in fact, beyond the scope of human bechirah, then we have no choice but to conclude that on a deep-seated, imperceptible level these ostensible “evils” are in reality in accordance with HaShems Will.

A classic example of this phenomenon is Yehudah’s extramarital dalliance with Tamar.  Our sages reveal that in that particular episode the angel in charge of lust compelled him to act. While Yehudah’s behavior was overtly scandalous, immoral, unethical and, on a black-and-white level, “evil”; on a deeply hidden level it was consistent with, kivyachol, HaShems most dearly held Will and Desire to bring about the ultimate repair and salvation of the cosmos.  For, as we know, the seeds of Moshiach were then sown.

There is a paradoxical halachah that if the entire epidermis of the Metzora-leper turns white that he retains or regains his state of taharah–ritual purity.  Paradoxical; because the various tones of blanching and pallor of the lesions/rashes that afflict a Metzora’s skin and the growth and spread of these rashes must be considered symptoms of tumah-ritual impurity, in the eyes of the Kohen who beholds them. If the negaim of tzara’as described in our parshah were physical diseases rather than metaphysical maladies this would make about as much sense as an oncologist arguing that if a tiny mole on a person’s skin changes color or increases in size by so much as the diameter of a dime; that a biopsy is no longer necessary because these are sure symptoms of a malignancy.  But that if every centimeter of the patient’s skin assumes the new mole-like hue that no course of treatment is necessary because this is a sign of the body having cured itself and of robust good health.

None of us are Dorian Gray or his portrait. People rarely display blatant signs of their sins or of their middos raos– wicked character traits, for the entire world to see.  But the negaim described in our parshah are an exception to the rule. The gemara (Arachin 16A) lists seven sins that cause the negaim of the Metzora.  The second Izhbitzer maintains that these negaim precisely correspond to the quality and quantity of evil within the sinner’s soul.  Thus, the halachah governing the case of kulo haphach lavan-the entire epidermis turning white, serves as a metaphor for those obtuse, ostensibly evil acts that are, in fact, consistent with HaShems will.  In effect, if the deck has been stacked against us, if the party of Evil has taken full control of the souls parliament such that it is now a one-party government of coercive dictatorship, in short, if it’s all bad …  it must actually be Good.  If every inch of the person is white and tamei then the person is tahor.

While I have used the parliamentarian model as a mere metaphor to explain the Izhbitzers insight, the other example that he cites in support of this teaching comes thisclose to a parliamentarian model on a literal level.  It is a near fusion of mashal and nimshal — of allegory and that which is being symbolized.

There is a halachah in Torah jurisprudence that if the Sanhedrin-the tribunal sitting in judgment on a capital case, votes unanimously that the accused is guilty of the sin/ crime that he must then be acquitted.  This is so, argues the Izhbitzer, because the split decision of every Sanhedrin reflects the internal conflicts and ambivalences of the contending wills and desires of Good and Evil battling within the person’s heart at the time that he committed the act.

At the time of the act for which he is now on trial the more powerfully that his will and desire to do Good asserted itself the greater the number of Sanhedrin members advocating for his acquittal will be. Conversely, the weaker that his will and desire to do Good was at that time, the greater the number of Sanhedrin members prosecuting for his punishment will be.  But in a case where every last member of Sanhedrin sees him as guilty that is proof positive that the sin/crime that he committed transcended the outer limits of his bechirah.  As was the case with Yehudah in his superficial personal Waterloo with Tamar, the accused now standing before the Sanhedrin had his bechirah taken from him.  He could not possibly have prevented himself from doing and acting as he did.  This is why the law dictates that if all the members if the Sanhedrin say that he is guilty …  then he is innocent.

DISCLAIMER: the preceding Izhbitzer Torah must be filed under the category of drosh v’kabel sechar-study this portion of the Torah and reap the rewards of your studies.  In other words; it really has no practical application to our own Avodas HaShem nor should it make any difference in our own self-perceptions.  We are required to treat every challenge that comes our way as within the parameters of our bechirah points.  An omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent Divine Providence would not have set this challenge before us if it was too much for us to handle.  In the lifelong milchemes hayetzer war of attrition that we wage when exercising our bechirah we are also required to keep on conquering more and more territory.  Our goal must be to have more and more of the good that we do become coercive and automatic and to force the enemy to retreat and cede territory so that our bechirah points keep rising to ever higher levels.

We will never know for certain which episodes in our lives, whether for Good or for Evil, actually lay the outside the boundaries of our bechirah until after 120 years when we meet our Maker and every single one of our thoughts, words and deeds are reviewed by His heavenly tribunal.

~adapted from Bais Yaakov Tazria 38 page 136

An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Please note: I was at unable to provide an online link to the original Hebrew source material. If anyone would like a scanned copy of the pertinent page please email me at  It should be available by tomorrow.

4 comments on “So Bad That it MUST be Good

  1. If the Sanhedrin votes unanimously for guilt then the law is he gets off. This has nothing to do with the Izhbitzers explanation of said law. by the way, according to some in the hypothetical that you provided the accused may get off on a completely different technicality … there MUST be some psulei edus in the crowd. IIRC there’s an opinion that even those witnesses who merely saw but who do not come to testify can invalidate the entire kitah of eidim if they are pesulim.. but I could be mis-remembering.

    As for Yehuda there was also the problem of kalaso, the near-miscarriage of justice of executing an innocent woman, the shitah that the sehvatim kept all of the Torah prior to the revelation at Sinai and… es past nisht even if it is mutar.

    If it was so “permissible’ why did he choose to take a pass and move on until the angel intervened?

  2. If a person commits murder in front of a thousand people, where there is no rationale to be dan lekaf zechus, do you mean to tell me he gets off?

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