Parashat Metzora deals with different types of tzara’at, a spiritual malaise that manifests itself as a fungal infection. While tzara’at is most commonly associated with human skin, it can also be found on a piece of cloth or even on the walls of a house. This week we’ll take a closer look at tzara’at of a house – “residential tzara’at”. The symptoms consist of a reddish or greenish blotch on one of the walls. If the blotch grows or does not go away then a Kohen is consulted. After a one-week quarantine period the Kohen takes another look. If the blotch still does not disappear then it is scraped off and everybody waits another week. If at the end of the second week the blotch refuses to go away, the house must be torn down. After the house is first diagnosed with suspicion of tzara’at, no matter how much we subsequently scrape or scrub, the house and everything inside of it become ritually impure [Vayikra 14:46]: “Anyone entering the house during all the days of its quarantine shall become unclean until the evening”. Finally, the Torah describes how the house is purified, assuming that the blotches disappear on their own.

Two of the verses dealing with residential tzara’at require clarification [Vayikra 14:35-36]: “The one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the Kohen, saying, ‘Something [that looks] like a lesion has appeared to me in the house’. The Kohen shall order that they clear out the house before the Kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean. After this, the Kohen shall come to look at the house.” If the owner suspects that his house is infected, then before the Kohen shows up at his front door he should hurry and remove anything that he does not want rendered impure. It is important to observe that this verse is not teaching a law. We already know that everything in the house will become impure as soon as the house is quarantined. What the Torah is telling us here is that it would be a good idea to take our possessions out of the house before the house is quarantined if we want them to remain pure[1]. Hold on – isn’t the Torah a “Book of Law”? Isn’t it supposed to teach us what we must and mustn’t do? The Torah tells us unequivocal things like “Thou shalt not kill!”, “Keep the Shabbat!” and “186,000 miles per second – it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!” Since when did the Torah start making recommendations like it were some kind of “Michelin’s Guide”?

The first place to look for guidance is always in the commentary of Rashi. Noting that Hashem promises [Vayikra 14:34] “I will give a lesion of tzara’at upon a house”, Rashi explains that the phrase “I will give” means “I will give you a gift”. Rashi continues: “This is [good] news for them that lesions of tzara’at will come upon them, because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert and through the lesion he will demolish the house and find them”. Were it not for the tzara’at you would have had gold and silver in your walls and you never would have known about it! Fair enough, but what about the people living years later in houses they built with their own hands? They have no treasures in their walls. For these folks residential tzara’at is one big hassle with absolutely zero benefit. It is commonly acknowledged that the laws of tzara’at have not been practiced since the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, nearly two thousand years ago. Conversely, this means that these laws were practiced for more than one thousand years. Rashi’s explanation seems relevant only for a small minority of people who entered the Land of Israel with Joshua. What about everybody else? What kind of “wonderful news” was tzara’at for them?

Rav Levi Yitzchak from Berditchev, writing in Kedushat Levi, gives us some traction. Rav Levi Yitzchak asks why the Hashem had to reveal the Amorite treasure by having the homeowner tear down one of his walls. Why couldn’t Hashem just arrange it so a crack appeared in the wall, revealing the treasure?[2] It must mean that the Amorites hiding their treasure was not a quirk of history, but, rather, that it has eternal significance. I suggest that this significance has everything to do with the concept of “deterrence”.

After Am Yisrael cross the Red Sea, they spontaneously erupt in song – the Shirat HaYam that we repeat each day After extolling Hashem for the wondrous miracles they experienced, they exclaim [Shemot 15:14-15] “Peoples heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chieftains of Edom were startled; [as for] the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted.” With all due respect, Hashem has just defeated the Egyptians in the battle to end all battles. Why are Am Yisrael interested in Philistia, Edom, and Moab? The answer is a basic tenet of military philosophy: More important than the wars we win are the wars that we do not have to fight. By displaying copious amounts of shock and awe at the Red Sea, Hashem pre-empted three other wars: The Philistines, who were usually as bellicose as the Klingons[3], kept far away from Am Yisrael during their forty years in the desert. The Edomites made one show of force when they thought that Am Yisrael were invading and then they retreated. The Moabites were so scared of war that they hired a magician to curse Am Yisrael. That the Amorites were so scared of Am Yisrael that they hid all of their valuables in preparation for their arrival is another direct result of the deterrence achieved at the Red Sea. The fact that deterrence is weaved into the fabric of the Torah – in both Shirat HaYam and in residential tzara’at – means that it is more than just something found in von Clausewitz – it is a heavenly directive: Thou shalt ensure thine enemy is too scared to pick a fight.

Let’s return to the verse we quoted above: “The one to whom the house belongs comes… saying, ‘…a lesion has appeared to me in the house’. The Kohen shall order that they clear out the house… so that everything in the house should not become unclean. After this, the Kohen shall come to look at the house.” The word “house” appears five times in only two verses. I suggest that the “house” the Torah is talking about is much more than just four walls and a roof. Residential tzara’at is introduced one verse earlier [Vayikra 14:34]: “When you come to the Land of Canaan, which I am giving you as an inheritance, and I give a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your inheritance”. First, the Land of Canaan is twice referred to as an “inheritance”. Second, not only does Hashem “gift” Am Yisrael tzara’at upon a house – He also “gifts” Am Yisrael the Land of Canaan. The connection between a house and the Land of Canaan as a national home could not be more clear, and neither can the conclusion: When the Torah tells the “homeowner” to preemptively remove his possessions from his home so that they do not become impure, the Torah is telling us at the same time that in order to keep the greatest gift that Hashem ever gave his nation – our national home – it is vital that we take similar preemptive steps. We must maintain the same level of deterrence with the twenty-first century Amorites as Am Yisrael did when they entered the land of their inheritance more than three thousand years ago.

I have spent the last ten years working in missile defence. Without a doubt these systems have changed the way in which wars are fought. They have saved lives. They have rendered Hamas rockets irrelevant and they have restored a sense of security that had been missing for more than a decade. But they don’t win wars and they will not prevent the next war. What will prevent the next war is ensuring that our enemies fully understand that if they drag Israel into a war then they will incur unsustainable losses. This message must be backed up with military strength and a willingness to use it if necessary. This is our house and we will protect this house with all of our might.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] The verse cannot be teaching us that the house only becomes pure after the Kohen declares it so. We already learnt this in Parashat Tazria. See, for example, Vayikra [13:8].

[2] Rav Levi Yitzhak answers his question, but his answer is less relevant to this shiur than his question.

[3] We trekkies know who we are.