Modesty, privacy, hatznea leches, is a principle to which we should all adhere. The Navi Michah exhorts us to “walk modestly with Hashem” (Michah 6:8). When a person acts modestly in public, it is easier to feel a sense of pride and have ulterior motives (even) when serving Hashem. When a person acts modestly in private, these ulterior motives are not an issue, since no one sees him.
The Noam Elimelech observes that this is true only when one wishes to come close to Hashem via his service. He must walk on the path of modesty. The baal teshuvah, penitent, who originally had transgressed publicly with such sins as slander, defamation of character, and evil speech must necessarily repent in public as well. This follows the halachah of K’bo’lo kach polto, “in the manner in which it was swallowed, so it is expelled” (Pesachim 30b). According to this law, in the same manner that a forbidden thing is either ingested or absorbed, it is expelled. Thus, a sin that is committed in private should have its repentance performed in private, hidden from people. A sin that was committed publicly, flagrantly, should have its repentance, likewise, performed on the public stage.
This is all fine from the perspective of atoning for the sin, but how can teshuvah be carried out publicly, where there is the issue of ulterior motives with which to contend? If the penitent is “plagued” by ulterior motives, the attention grabbing aspect of the public domain is seriously undermined and his act of repentance flawed.
The Lishensker (Noam Elimelech/Rebbe Elimelech of Lishensk) explains that this is why the metzora must go to the righteous leader, the Kohen, whose life is devoted unequivocally to Hashem and His service. When one comes in contact with such spiritual integrity as evinced by the Kohen, who stands at the apex of spiritual demeanor, the penitent no longer has thoughts of ulterior motives. The Rebbe explains that the yetzer hora, evil inclination (which is the force behind the ulterior motives), has no power when a totally righteous person challenges it. Furthermore, the baal teshuvah observes the actions of the tzaddik and is so inspired that ulterior motives do not play a role in his life. Indeed, he is inspired to ask himself, “How can I take pride in my deeds (ulterior motives), when I compare them to the actions of the true tzaddik?”
The Torah teaches us: “This is the law of the metzora – on the day” (daylight/publicly), when he publicly and openly repents. And if you might question this publicity, because he might become haughty from the public display – he first goes to the Kohen, in whose presence he will be relieved of any traces of ulterior motives.
In his Aznaim La’Torah, Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, asks how we reconcile the metzora going to the Kohen with, V’yatza ha’Kohen michutz la’machaneh, “And the Kohen shall go outside of the camp.” If we bring the metzora to the Kohen, why does the Kohen have to go out of the camp (so to speak to “greet” him)? The Lutzker Rav explains that the metzora cannot come into the camp, due to the fact that he is still in a state of tumah, ritual impurity. Until the Kohen views the plague and renders it pure, the metzora’s tumah, impurity, remains in full force. The Torah teaches us an important chiddush, novel idea. The Kohen goes to a designated place located outside of the camp. The metzora, however, comes first and waits until the Kohen arrives.
This procedure is executed in this manner, because tzaraas (for the most part) is brought upon a person due to gasus ha’ruach, vulgarity, pompousness. (These coarse qualities lead to lashon hora.) If the Kohen were to arrive first, the metzora might, in his pompous mind, conjecture that the Kohen must wait for “him.” He is the greater of the two. Instead, the metzora goes and waits for the Kohen. This should diminish his arrogance. The metzora is brought to the Kohen, but he waits in the designated place for the arrival of the tzaddik who will purify him.
One observation: It is eye-opening how self-centered an individual can be. The metzora is tamei, having ritually contaminated himself with his vulgar attitude and slanderous tongue. Now, after the period of quarantine and its accompanying embarrassment, the metzora is still plagued by his overbearing ego, to the point that if the Kohen would arrive before him, he (the metzora) might delude himself into thinking that the Kohen is waiting for “him”! This is the meaning of gasus ha’ruach. Even when all the cards are stacked against him, and he has suffered humiliation, his ego does not deflate. The same ego which is the foundation upon which one’s self-esteem is built can simultaneously be the most self-destructive quality which can catalyze his downfall.
Why does the Kohen have such power? How does his mere presence, the face to face between the metzora and the Kohen transform the metzora’s arrogance into sheepish submission? A similar instance is found in Megillas Esther, which relates the inability of Haman ha’rasha to tolerate the existence of Mordechai ha’tzaddik, to the point of obsession. V’chol zeh einenu shove li; “Yet all this means nothing to me” (Megillas Esther 5:13) (as long as I see Mordechai, etc.). What was it about Mordechai that extinguished Haman’s arrogance? What undermined this evil man’s power, rendering it worthless? I heard an insightful explanation. Mordechai represents emes, absolute, pristine truth. Living a life guided fully by Torah imbues one with an unabashed intolerance for sheker, falsehood. Likewise, falsehood cannot function in the presence of emes. Haman personified falsehood. Mordechai lived emes. Thus, Haman simply could not live in Mordechai’s presence. Suddenly his life had no meaning, no value. It was all a sham. When he saw Mordechai, he began to lose control of himself. Likewise, when the metzora stands before the righteous Kohen, his preconceived notion of “self” dissipates as he transitions into meek submission. This is the power of truth.