"Then the priest shall command to take two clean living birds and cedar wood, scarlet wool and hyssop, for the purification of the so-called "leper"." (Lev. 14:4)

The plague, or tzara'at [various skin diseases (usually and incorrectly translated as "leprosy") that can render a person spiritually impure], came as a punishment for arrogance. What is the remedy? Let him relinquish his arrogance and consider himself as lowly as a worm [which was used to dye the scarlet wool] and the hyssop [a low scruffy shrub]. (Rashi)

If the purpose of the service of purification is to have the so-called "leper" abandon his arrogance, then what is the purpose of cedar which is tall and stately and symbolizes pride?

Once, the Baal Shem Tov went to spend Shabbat in Polnoye, the hometown of his student, the "Toldot", Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye. The Baal Shem Tov was traveling in quite a fancy carriage and a resident of the town, a well known instigator, used the opportunity to disparage the Baal Shem Tov for what he deemed unwarranted opulence.

Of paramount importance is inner humility and acceptance….

The Baal Shem Tov however, was unmoved by his taunts. "Let me relate to you a parable", he offered:

A king once searched the world over for the fountain of youth - an elixir that would guarantee him immortality. A wise man came before the king and offered him a remedy. He must absolutely remove from himself any trace of arrogance, and conduct himself with utter humility. The suggestion of the wise man found favor in the king's eyes and he immediately began its implementation.

It wasn't long before the king stopped riding in his royal carriage, and instead, walked behind it on foot. However, the more he took humble behavior upon himself, the more haughty he became. 'Look at me', he would think as he pictured himself in his mind's eye. 'I am a powerful King, yet see how I carry myself. No one is more humble than I!'

The wise man however saw through the sham. 'Your Majesty', he cajoled, 'This is not what I intended. Your Majesty should indeed be riding in the Royal carriage. But in your heart you should feel contrite and humble like the man walking behind the carriage. This kind of humility is acquired with much greater effort and sacrifice. It is however, genuine humility."

The cedar wood was needed to teach the so-called "leper" the proper way of humility, a genuine correction of his arrogance. Humility and submission do not require that the body be bent over in the process. Of paramount importance is inner humility and acceptance.

One can bow even while standing erect….

The Baal Shem Tov explained this according to an idea found in the Nishmat prayer of Shabbat morning. "And all that stand before You shall bow down…." One can bow even while standing erect.

The role of the cedar wood is to remind the so-called "leper" that he doesn't need to go around bent over and miserable. He can stand straight and erect as a cedar, yet in spirit remain humble like the hyssop.

There is another well known explanation for the role of the cedar wood. When a person humbles himself in repentance, it is possible that the process can humiliate him so much that it is harmful. The addition of the cedar in the rite reminds the so-called "leper" that the purpose of his acquired humility is to make him a good person and not a pariah.

For this reason, the next verse (Lev.14:5) tells us that one of the birds of the sacrifice was to be slaughtered in an earthenware vessel, over live running water. The earthenware vessel reminds the so-called "leper" of his humble lowly state. Yet the live waters serve to refresh and revive him, preventing him from becoming despondent. Living waters symbolize the Torah; through Torah and mitzvot he will regain the stature that he lost.

The Chiddushei HaRim adds that this humility should not be false humility. There are times when a person must exhibit pride; for example in the face of someone denouncing the Torah or disparaging the Sages. Other times he must show initiative when his advice or assistance are required. At those times, if a person would insist on saying, "Who am I, and what am I to offer my advice or to get involved?", then his humility is false.

May we learn to walk humbly with every part of Creation and before its Creator.

[First published in B'Ohel Hatzadikim, Metzora 5759]