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Parsha Pearls: Tazria-Metzora

Why is Eliyahu Called the Angel of the Bris?
The White Flag Demonstration
The White Flag Demonstration in 1948

And the kohein sees him, and behold the rising of the plague is reddish-white in his rear or frontal baldness, like the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the flesh. He is a leprous man; he is unclean; the kohein shall surely pronounce him unclean; in his head is his plague. (13:43-4)

The Netziv explains that all leprosy comes because of the person’s sins, but whereas leprosy on the flesh of the body comes because of sins of the flesh, committed as a result of desire, leprosy on the head comes because of the sin of incorrect beliefs. Thus, the Torah says that although the plague on the head has “the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the flesh,” yet its location indicates that the person committed sins in his mind. The Torah is stressing this so that we might be more careful to avoid such a person, for the sin of incorrect beliefs is the kind of sin that can easily spread to others. This is the meaning of the long and seemingly redundant verse quoted above: “He is a leprous man,” and the disease itself is contagious, so people should stay away from him. And even a tzaddik, who is not afraid of coming into contact with the sick, should stay away because “he is unclean” – he transmits tum’ah. But still I might think that a very great man would have reason to speak with this leper, to rebuke him for his sins and convince him to do teshuva. Therefore the Torah says, “In his head is his plague,” i.e. since he has heretical ideas, he cannot be rebuked, as Chazal say (Sanhedrin 38b) that one should not debate with a heretic, for he will only become worse. (Haamek Davar)

And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (12:3)

At every bris milah, the mohel recites, “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon Hakohein, turned away my anger from the children of Israel when he acted out My anger in their midst, and so I did not destroy the children of Israel in My anger…Eliyahu, angel of the bris, here is yours; stand on my right hand and support me.” What is the connection between Pinchas, renamed Eliyahu, and bris milah? Why is he called “the angel of the bris”? True, Hashem did promise Pinchas a covenant of peace, but nowhere does it say that this refers to the covenant of circumcision. If any person in the Torah is to be connected with the mitzvah of bris milah, it should be Avraham Avinu, who was the first to perform this mitzvah.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 48:8) says that Avraham Avinu will sit by the door to Gehinom and not let any Jew enter, unless he is uncircumcised. The Gemara (Eiruvin 19a) says that Avraham will not let any Jew into Gehinom unless he married a gentile woman. What is special about these two virtues – being circumcised and not marrying a gentile – that they have the power to spare a Jew from Gehinom?

The Meshech Chochmah on Bereishis 15:18 answers this question based on the Midrash in Bereishis Rabba 44:21: Hashem showed Avraham four things: Gehinom, the exiles, the giving of the Torah and the Temple. He said to him, “As long as your descendents are busy with the last two, they will be spared the first two. But if they leave the last two, they will get the first two. [Since the Temple will one day be destroyed, they will have to get one of the punishments.] Which punishment do you choose for them?” Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said: Avraham chose the exiles. Rabbi Yudan, Rabbi Idi and Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said: Avraham chose Gehinom, but Hashem chose for him the exiles…Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Acha: Avraham was sitting and thinking all that day: “What should I choose, Gehinom or exile?” Said the Holy One, blessed is He, to him, “Avraham! Throw away that coin [of Gehinom]!”

The Midrash on Eichah 1:3 says: Why does Scripture speak so much about the exile of the Jewish people? Aren’t there many nations who were exiled from their lands? The Midrash answers: when gentiles go into exile, they assimilate into their new country. They eat the same foods, drink the same drinks and eventually intermarry with the population of the new country. Thus they are not really in exile anymore; they are full-fledged members of their new country’s culture. But Jews go into exile and remain separate from the culture around them, not eating with the gentiles or intermarrying; thus their exile continues for generation after generation.

Avraham has the power to spare a Jew from Gehinom because of the deal he made with G-d, that his descendants would go into exile instead of Gehinom. But there is one gap in Avraham’s power: if a Jew has assimilated to the point where he marries a gentile or is not circumcised, Avraham cannot save him, because such a Jew chose not to truly experience exile, and by default he has opted for the only other alternative: Gehinom.

Based on these words of the Meshech Chochmah, we can understand the crucial role of Pinchas. Pinchas saw a Jew about to marry a gentile woman, and took zealous action. Through his zeal, that Jew was privileged to die as a Jew. The Torah says (Bamidbar 25:14), “And the name of the Israelite man who was smitten…” He died with the distinction of being called “an Israelite man”. Thus Pinchas, with his zeal in fighting assimilation, closed the gap in Avraham’s power. Thanks to Pinchas and those like him, every Jew can be saved from Gehinom. This is why he, under his new name Eliyahu Hanavi, was chosen to be the “angel of the bris.”

In times past, assimilation was the main threat to Avraham’s covenant, which substituted exile for Gehinom. But now we face a different threat to that same covenant: Zionism. By bringing a premature end to the exile, Zionism undermines Avraham’s power to spare every Jew from Gehinom. We are in danger of seeing the fulfillment of Rabbeinu Gershom’s prophetic words, in his commentary to Tamid 32a: “The Satan triumphs! He confuses them and gives them a redemption, and in the end he will bring them down to Gehinom!” He means that those who partake in the Satan’s false redemption will end up in Gehinom, because they will not experience the exile planned by Avraham Avinu as its substitute. Let us emulate Pinchas by acting zealously to close this gap and bring every Jew into the covenant of Avraham.

If a woman’s blood flows for many days outside of her period of separation… (15:25)

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 19:5) connects this verse with another verse containing the words “many days” (ימים רבים), a prophecy about the Jewish exile: “And many days will pass by for Israel without a true G-d and without a kohein to teach and without Torah. And they will repent, in their trouble, to Hashem, G-d of Israel, and they will seek Him and He will be found by them. And in those times, there will be no peace for people coming and going, for many upheavals will affect the inhabitants of all the lands. One nation will be battered by the other, and one city by the other, for G-d will confound them with all kinds of trouble. But you be strong, and let your hands not weaken, for there is reward for your actions” (Divrei Hayamim II 15:3-7).

The Midrash explains that “without a true G-d” means that G-d’s attribute of justice will not be exercised in the world; the nations will persecute the Jews and seemingly escape punishment. “Without a kohein to teach” means that the office of kohein gadol will cease to exist. “Without Torah” means that the Sanhedrin will cease to exist.

Apart from the similarity of words, what is the connection between this and the subject of our Parsha? The Parsha speaks about a woman’s monthly state of separation (nidah). The prophets compare the Jewish people’s exile to a state of nidah separation: “Their way was considered by Me like the defilement of nidah” (Yechezkel 36:17). Rashi comments, “Scripture compares the Jewish people to a wife in a state of nidah, whose husband is waiting and looking forward to her becoming clean again.” Similarly the Radak says, “Just as a husband sends his wife away from him during her nidah and brings her back after she has become clean, so too G-d exiled the Jewish people into the lands of the nations because of their sins and He will bring them back after they repent to Him and become pure of sin.”

But there are two types of nidah: the regular monthly nidah, and the zavah. The regular monthly nidah is predictable and short. It lasts seven days, and then she is clean again (15:19). The zavah, on the other hand, occurs at irregular times, and can last indefinitely – until she has seven clean days in a row. The Jewish people as well have had two types of exiles. The Babylonian exile had an explicitly stated time limit of 70 years, whereas the current exile stretches on and on and seems to have no end. The Midrash is comparing our current exile to the zavah.

The Midrash continues, “When the Jews at that time heard this bleak prophecy, they became discouraged. Then a Divine Voice proclaimed the words of Yishaya 35:3-4: ‘Strengthen weak hands and give support to falling knees! Say to the impatient-hearted: Be strong, do not fear. Behold, your G-d will come in vengeance, with Divine retribution He will come and save you.’” The impatient-hearted, explains the Midrash, are those who force the end of exile before its time.

The 5th of Iyar is the anniversary of the day when these impatient-hearted people declared that they had had enough of Hashem’s decree of exile, and they had decided to end it with their own action. Although the official declaration was made on that day, it was preceded by six months of fighting, in which the Zionists brought the anger of the local and neighboring Arabs upon the Jews of Eretz Yisroel. Jerusalem was besieged, and the Arab villages along the western approach to Jerusalem became major battefields. In the midst of this war, on April 8, 1948, the Brisker Rav and the Chazon Ish encouraged all the religious Jews of Jerusalem to come out to the streets and wave the white flag to show the Arabs and the British that they were not Zionists and wanted no part in this war. The demonstration was led by Rabbi Yaakov Halperin, a close disciple of the Chazon Ish, and Rabbi Amram Blau, a close disciple of the Brisker Rav.

Several hundred Jews of the Old Yishuv gathered in the Meah Shearim Yeshiva to say Tehillim and hear speeches. Then they came out and began to march down Meah Shearim Street. Businesses closed and thousands of other residents joined the march. They held white banners reading, “We are for peace! We demand a ceasefire!” The leaflets they handed out read, “Do not blindly follow the leaders of the Zionist Agency, who refuse to listen to our holy Torah! Do not allow your sons and daughters to be killed for the sake of a state of emptiness! We are for peace! Jews, rise up against the policies of the leadership of the Agency, who are mafkir Jewish blood. The Zionist leadership does not represent us! We are Jews, and we will follow the Torah’s guidance! We are for peace! We turn to the British Government to save us from our predicament!”

The demonstrators had planned to march to the British Mandate offices to deliver their message in person. But they had only reached Geulah Street when the Zionist Haganah met them with blows and shots. They beat the demonstrators mercilessly until they scattered and ran home. The Zionists also confiscated all films and pictures taken of the demonstration before they could reach the media. The Jews of the Old Yishuv submitted their plea to the British in writing.

After the demonstration, another leaflet was published explaining its purpose, and, following in the footsteps of Yishaya Hanavi, telling the impatient-hearted to wait for Hashem’s redemption: “It is true that among the nations of the world the sword rules, and whoever is stronger wins. But the Jewish people is completely different. Its salvation and redemption will come from the Rock of Israel, and as fast as we repent and purify our minds of thoughts borrowed from the nations, that is how fast our redemption will come. Our land then will be much bigger than the strip they are fighting for now. But we will not get it through our power and not by the sword, but by Hashem’s salvation. In the meantime, let us not force the end by killing, G-d forbid, the remainder of the Jews. Let us guard the coal of Israel from being extinguished, G-d forbid. Let us keep our young men, each of whom is worth an entire world… Let us gird ourselves with patience for that great and awesome day, when Hashem will gather us in… We knew we would be beaten for delivering this message. We knew we would be laughed at. But the feelings of Ahavas Yisroel that burn in our hearts did not allow us to stay home and keep our bodies and dignity intact. We exposed ourselves to blows in order to express our position, which is only for the good of the Jewish people.”

The Chazon Ish later remarked, “When the state was established, there was a kitrug (accusation) in Heaven against Jews of Eretz Yisroel for not leaving the state. I myself was ready to leave. But when they marched in Jerusalem holding white banners demanding a ceasefire, the accusation was dropped and there was atonement.”