When the skin of one’s body sustains a burn by fire… – Leviticus 13:24

A Babylonian Jew by birth, Rabbi Zera studied in the great centers of Jewish scholarship before leaving to continue his learning in Eretz Yisrael. It is said that he was so eager to reach his destination that he crossed a river with his clothes on (BT Ket. 112a). When he arrived there, he was not always received kindly by the native-born Jews. Once, he asked a storekeeper to measure something carefully. The angry man responded, “Get out, Babylonian! Your ancestors destroyed the Holy Temple!” An astonished Rabbi Zera replied, “Aren’t my ancestors the same as his?” (Songs R. 8:9).

Conscious of the low opinion others might hold of him in the yeshiva, too, Rabbi Zera zealously embraced ascetic practices. He fasted 100 days in order to forget the methods of his former teachers in Babylonia. He fasted another 100 days that Rabbi Elazar should not die during his lifetime lest he be required to assume his responsibilities and then another 100 days that he should be saved from suffering after his own death. Every 30 days he would test himself by going into a hot oven. One day the rabbis came and saw that his legs were singed by the fire.
This is how Rabbi Zera acquired the nickname “Little Burnt Legs” (BT BM 85a).

The Torah teaches that sometimes a burn may develop into a more serious ailment requiring seven days of isolation. Other times, it is just a burn: But if the discoloration has remained stationary, not having spread on the skin, and it is faded, it is the swelling of the burn(Lev. 13:28). Even an ordinary burn may come with a lesson. Rabbi Zera learned that with piety, as in all things, there is a critical difference between humility and self-aggrandizement. He became head of his Tiberias yeshiva and one of the most distinguished scholars of his generation. He attributed his longevity to his modesty and he “never called another by his nickname” (BT Meg. 28a).

As bakers who work with hot ovens and open flames, we, too, are subject to burnt skin from time to time. Insecurity may lead us to openly or secretly compete with others for recognition in ways that are ultimately self-defeating. Let us learn from Rabbi Zera confidence and humility.

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