The Subtleties Of One Letter
We can learn numerous lessons from the statement of the owner of a house that appears to be afflicted with spiritual defilement.
1. R. Mizrachi quotes his teachers: The Torah is teaching a lesson in proper behavior (derech eretz), to speak with reservation and humility, even when the situation looks unequivocally clear. As the Talmud says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Tractate Berachot 4a).
2. R. Mizrachi himself suggests two answers. First: Since the Kohen is the only one to determine whether or not the house is unclean, for anyone else to say so would be disrespectful towards the position of the Kohen. This is similar to the prohibition against a student, even a very knowledgeable one, rendering a halachic (Jewish legal) decision in the presence of his teacher (Tractate Sanhedrin 5b).
3. R. Mizrachi’s second answer is that the Kohen should not be rushed into making his proclamation. By the owner saying “k’nega,” he is taking some of the pressure off the Kohen.
4. Gur Aryeh (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, the Maharal of Prague, c. 1525-1609) states: The owner may not say, “A plague,” simply because it is not true. Until the Kohen proclaims it tamei, it is not a plague, and must not be spoken of as such, because “He that tells lies shall not remain” (Psalms 101:7).
5. Korban Aharon (R. Aharon ben Avraham ibn Chayim; 1545-1632) comments: When the symptoms of tzara’at appear in the house, it is a plague, but it does not attain the status of tamei until the Kohen declares it so. Meanwhile, however, it is still possible that the plague will dim and the Kohen will then proclaim tahor. At this stage, the owner is enjoined, “Do not open your mouth to the Satan” (Tractate Berachot 19a): do not foreshadow a worst-case scenario.
One question remains: Why doesn’t this insistence on saying k’nega also apply to body-tzara’at or clothing-tzara’at? Tosefot Yom Tov notes that house-tzara’at is the first stage in the process. Once the clothing or body has been afflicted the die has been cast and it’s too late.
Perhaps here we can incorporate the idea from the Korban Aharon. At this unresolved stage between k’nega and nega, all is not lost. In fact, Hashem is doing the owner of the house a favor by making him aware of a fault in his character. This seeming-plague is an alarm bell, a wake-up call to repentance. Now is not the time to take a negative attitude, but to welcome the warning before matters deteriorate.
From this one halacha (law), we gain many insights into the values that must suffuse Torah learning:
Pursue truth with humility.
Respect those in positions of honor.
Make decisions without haste.
Remain open to positive results.
Be ready for initiatives to self-improvement.
Be careful with each word.
All this from “k’nega!” How much can be learned from just one letter!
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