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“The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘Something like a plague has appeared upon my house’” Leviticus 14:35
This week we read two portions of the Torah which give details of diseases and their treatment. Much of the deep meaning of these chapters is found hidden between the lines, in the exact words the Torah uses to describe the different procedures. For example, when presenting a house plague, the owner is told to come to the priest and say that “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” Rashi comments: “Even a scholar who knows for certain that it is a plague, should not say ‘it is a plague’, but rather — ‘something like a plague’.”
Why should a person who knows for certain that it is a plague not tell the priest what he knows? That depends on how you frame the answer. Rabbi Lifman Heller (Germany, 17th century) sees this as a superstition. Even mentioning a plague, before it has been properly diagnosed, could cause a harmless rash to become a real plague.
Rabbi Judah Loew (The Maharal of Prague, 16th century) takes a more legalistic view: until the priest has made a diagnosis, it is not really a plague. Therefore the owner, if he wants to be truthful, can only say that it looks like a plague. But it is Elijah Mizrachi (Turkey, 15th century), who sees this as an expression of humility, whose commentary resonates. A person should be aware that they could be wrong, and therefore, never speak in certainties.
Our society does not value humility enough. We are encouraged to display self-confidence — that’s how you win. The Torah reminds us that humility allows us to hear others and take advice. In times of crisis, it is humility, not over-confidence, that will help us to find the right answers.