תַזְרִיעַ / מְּצֹרָע
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens “A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.
The 1970 movie Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, follows the story of Jack Crabb, a white boy adopted by a Cheyenne warrior and raised among the Indians with the name Little Big Man. Jack spends his life moving between the very different worlds of his native white frontier people and his adopted Indian family. At one point, when he is back again among the Cheyenne, Jack takes a wife named Sunshine. The two live happily for a time, but then Sunshine persuades Jack to marry her three widowed sisters. Jack reluctantly agrees, and soon becomes head of a very large household. One day, as he wanders through the camp pondering his circumstances, he encounters an old enemy, the warrior Younger Bear whom he has inadvertently shamed many times. Thinking he at last has an advantage over Little Big Man, Younger Bear boasts, “I have a wife. And four horses.” Jack answers as if in a daze, “I have a horse . . . and four wives.” And with that absent-minded answer he once again shames Younger Bear.
Little Big Man is a satire, but oddly enough it echoes something from our ancient past. Our ancestor Jacob, like Jack Crabb, left the land of his birth to seek a wife among his distant relatives. He ended up taking four wives, shaming his wives’ kin, and coming home with far more than he anticipated. Jacob’s story, however, has much greater significance than the ribald satire of Little Big Man. His life is a continuous string of prophetic pictures illustrating what happens to us, his offspring.