Tazria-Metzora: Pinkus the Peddler

He was a character straight out of the novels of Charles Dickens. Scholars have long found Dickens' attitude toward Jews problematic. The character Fagin in the novel Oliver Twist is certainly a negative stereotype. But many are unaware of the character named Riah in Dickens' last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend. Riah is portrayed as a proud Jew, honest, wise, compassionate and courageous.

Pinkus always reminded me of Riah. He was a Holocaust survivor with no family, who eked out a livelihood by peddling his wares from door to door in Jewish neighborhoods. Such street peddlers were commonplace several generations ago, and he was among the last of them. He occasionally visited the Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up, but I knew him best from the lower East side where I went to yeshiva.

I no longer recall his real name, but we called him Pinkus because of a then-popular but now long-forgotten Yiddish song about Pinkus the Peddler.

We would buy our school supplies and other amenities from him, mostly out of sympathy. But those of us who had the patience to listen to his tales were more intrigued by his conversation than by the quality or price of his wares. Like Riah the Dickens character, he was proud, honest, wise, compassionate and courageous.

He discussed neither his Holocaust experiences nor his ultimate rescue. Rather, he plied us with riddles about the Bible and Talmud and was a treasure trove of anecdotes about the people he knew from what he called "my world which is no more."

Much later, I discovered another peddler in our own tradition, so that I no longer needed to identify just Pinkus with Riah. This peddler of old was one from whom not I, but none other than the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yannai, learned a great deal. And that brings us to the second parsha of this week's double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora.

This week we will read in comprehensive detail about the metzora, the person inflicted with blemishes of the skin often translated as leprosy. In the Bible, and even more so in the Talmud and Midrash, these blemishes are seen as Divine punishment for sins of speech: malicious gossip, slander, and defamations of character – so much so that the very word metzora is said to be a contraction of the words "motzi ra," "he who spreads evil."

Hence the anecdote described in the Midrash Rabbah associated with this week's Torah portion:

It once happened that a certain peddler was wandering from town to town and crying out, "Who wishes to buy a life-giving potion?" Rabbi Yannai heard this man's shouting and called upon him for an explanation. The peddler took out the book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse: "Who is the person who desires life, loving each day to see good? Then guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it."

Rabbi Yannai exclaimed, "All my life I have been reading this verse and never quite understood what it meant, until this peddler came and explained it… Therefore, Moses admonished the Jewish people and said to them these are the statutes of the 'metzora,' the statutes of the 'motzi shem ra,' the bearer of malicious gossip."

From time immemorial, commentators have struggled with the question, "What did the peddler say that Rabbi Yannai did not already know?" Rabbi Yannai, by his own testimony, had read the book of Psalms many times. The meaning of the verses quoted seems to be self-evident. What could this peddler have added to Rabbi Yannai's understanding?

Permit me to share with you one approach to demystifying this passage in the Midrash. It is drawn from a work by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a very insightful 20th century rabbi who lived and wrote in Israel. He reminds us of a teaching by Maimonides to the effect that there are similarities between physical health and illness and moral health and illness.

Taking that analogy further, Rabbi Zevin reminds us that there are foods for healthy people which those who are ailing can simply not digest. They need to first ingest medicine, healing foods, before they are ready for a proper diet.

Similarly, before one can embark upon the proper moral life, he or she often needs to first be healed from a prior tainted moral status. Thus, before one can live a life of "turning from evil and doing good; seeking peace and pursuing it," which is a normal healthy moral life, it is often necessary to first wean himself from habitual immoral practices which are typically very resistant to change.

Hence the ingenious insight of the peddler Rabbi Yannai heard. "Do you want to know the secret of a long life? Of a properly lived life of doing good and pursuing peace? Then first you must guard your tongue from evil. That is the secret potion, the healing medicine which will enable you to go on to the next step, moral health."

In this analysis, correcting one's patterns of speech is a therapeutic process, a life-giving potion; not a food, not the bread of life.

Only after this pernicious but pervasive fault is corrected, only after this moral disease is cured, can a person actively engage in the next verse in Psalms: "Turn from evil and do good…"

Rabbi Yannai was accustomed to reading these verses differently. He understood the question, "Who desires life?" But he thought that there was one compound answer: guard your tongue, turn from evil, and do good.

The peddler taught something much more profound. The answer to "Who desires life?" is a complex one. It consists of stages, the first of which is a healing process acquired by ingesting the potion of good speech. Then one can move up to the next stage, living a full and healthy moral life.

Pinkus the peddler taught me a lot when I was but a teenager. What I did not realize then was that he was following a long and honored tradition of itinerant peddlers who peddled not just trivial commodities, but words and wares of wisdom.