It is a difficult verse to understand. God seems to be promising punishment before there is evidence of a sin. The passage in Chapter 14:34 reads;
כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֖ם לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה וְנָתַתִּי֙ נֶ֣גַע צָרַ֔עַת בְּבֵ֖ית אֶ֥רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶֽם׃
When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague of leprosy upon a house in the land you possess.
Curiously the text itself does not specifically explain the cause, albeit intricate details are provided for ascertaining whether the house is “pure” or “impure” together with the measures that must be taken by the priest.
Rashi quoting the Sifra, prompted perhaps by this ambivalence, expounds that this occurrence is not a punishment at all! On the contrary it is a “Besorah” (tova) . God comes bearing good news! For in the walls which you will have to break down, treasures that the Amorites concealed will be found. Yet, if this was the purpose of the “besora” can these treasures not be discovered in a more convenient place, perhaps in the back garden?
The esoteric style of this announcement, which is uncharacteristically lengthy and repetitive, leads the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz 1550-1619. Head of the Yeshiva in Lvov and in later life the Chief Rabbi in Prague) to suggest that The House being referred to is The Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. An almost terrifying prophecy.
Both this commentary and that of Rashi only strengthen the difficulty to comprehend the context and rationale. It is only from the episodes where leprosy occurs on some of the most unexpected personalities, Moshe, and Miriam, that the sages propose that the disease is prompted by Lashon Hara – malicious speech. The Talmud in Erchin 15b playing on the term Metzo-ra- one who brings out evil through speech brings the following teaching;
אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב (ויקרא יד, ב) זאת תהיה תורת המצורע זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע
Reish Lakish says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “This shall be the law of the leper (metzora) on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest” (Leviticus 14:2)? This means that this shall be the law of a defamer (motzi shem ra) – S/he who speaks maliciously. Reish Lakish through this elucidation argues that the manifestation of leprosy is a direct result of malicious speech. These approaches make sense but do not satisfactorily address the conundrum of why the Torah does not unequivocally state this.
Perhaps the ambiguity of the Torah seeks to empower us through the astonishing suggestion of Rashi, to maintain optimism when all around us spurs the opposite. The image of the destroyed House as portrayed by the Kli Yakar conjures the iconic and counterintuitive response of Rabbi Akiva, witnessing the destroyed Temple from Har Tzoffim. The Talmud Makkot 24b relays a series of remarkable stories where he laughed as opposed to his pupils who wept. An optimism that became one of the core characteristics of this giant among our sages. In Hasidic tradition this mischievous playfulness enables them to see in the letters of Nega נגע -plague, ענג, as in Oneg Shabbat, – Joy. Astonishingly the archives run by historian and community figure Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, recording the horrendous events in the Warsaw Ghetto were called “Oneg Shabbat”.
It is these formidable traits that are foretold and bestowed in the dramatic announcement, or Besora, of the curious verse giving a glimpse into the future and the tenacity to find the hidden good.