In the already supernatural parshiot of צרעת, the physical manifestation of the spiritual illness of slander, one type stands out as being particularly paranormal:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה; וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת, בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם…
And G-d said to Moshe and Aharon saying: When you enter the Land of Canaan that I have given to you as a possession, and I put tzara’at on a house in the land of your possession… (ויקרא יד:לג-לד)
Whoa. So far, we’ve seen that one who speaks improperly about another Jew will have mysterious spots appear on his body, a divine message with impeccable timing, yes; but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Now, we see that our homes can also be affected by this, an illness that is undeniably otherworldly and beyond nature, as houses very rarely receive skin diseases.
Beyond this, the passuk stresses no less than three times that this ailment of ones abode can only happen after we have entered “ארץ כנען,” our “ארץ אחוזה,” showing some deeper connection between this particular נגע and the Holy Land. Why could it possibly be that the supernatural צרעת of the home can only take effect in ארץ ישראל?
Ramban, presenting the oft-preferred pshat interpretation, answers that when the Jewish People enter Eretz Yisrael, their inhabiting of the land will put them on a higher level of national spirituality. In this setting, when one Jew sins, he will have separated themselves from such a high level that their transgression will show extremely supernatural physical symptoms, such as their house developing a skin disease. It is incumbent on all of עם ישראל who live in ארץ ישראל to be very careful with how speak about their fellow Jews, because לשון הרע is such a serious sin that, in the Holy Land, its transgressors could expect punishments in the form of physical ills or even property/financial problems.
On the other hand, there is a well-known Midrash which presents a novel approach by suggesting that house צרעת is actually not a bad thing. When the Canaanites were preparing for the onslaught of Jews in the times of Yehoshua Bin Nun, they feared that their belongings would fall into the hands of the Israelites, so they hid treasures in the walls of their homes. Decades later, these houses would receive צרעת and need to be torn down, and in the process, these treasures would be recovered by the Jewish occupants, and, in the end, the inhabitants of the צרעת home would gain from their ordeal.
While there is always a lot of merit to every one of the Midrashic teachings, no matter how far-fetched they may be on occasion, this one in particular does not sit well with me, because it tremendously undermines the severity of the sin of לשון הרע by which one’s home would receive the צרעת. I would instead like to present an approach by Rav Teichtel in the first chapter of אם הבנים שמחה, one which I believe takes a different spin on our passuk:
ובזה נראה לפרש מאמר הכתוב: “כי תבואו אל ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לכם לאחוזה, ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתכם”. וכבר עמדו חז”ל על לשון “ונתתי”- דמשמע בשורה טובה. אבל בהנ”ל יובן, דהכונה, דהשם יתברך מבשר לנו, דבעת שכבר נטמאו בגוים כל כך עד שחושבים ישיבתם בארצות הגולה כאילו יושבים בארץ אחוזתם, הסיחו דעתם מלשוב לארץ ישראל, אז יתן השם יתברך נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתם, היינו בארצות הגולה דחשבינהו לארץ אחוזה שלהם יתן השם יתברך כמה מיני נגע צרעת, עד שיפקחו עיניהם וידעו כי מי לך פה ומה לך פה, ויתנו לבם לשוב אל אחוזת אבותינו.
Rav Teichtel answers that one could very well take the positive approach to “ונתתי” (as we’ve seen above), but based on the passuk, it seems like G-d is giving us a warning, not promising a reward. “When you (plural) enter Eretz Canaan, which I gave to you personally,” and you (singular) nonetheless remain in the land of your enemies, believing that to be your אחוזה, then “I (G-d) will send a נגע (punishment) to [your newly-adopted] אחוזה land.” In other words, this pasuk which introduces the section of house צרעת is a dire warning; when the time comes to return to Eretz Yisrael, if one ignores the call because they have made their exile into their new (permanent) home, then G-d will strike them and their new אחוזה with many different types of punishments.
Rav Teichtel continues by bringing the message home in the context of his time:
וכאשר אנו רואים בימינו שאחר כל הצרות שהגיעונו, כל אחד ואחד מישראל כוסף וחומד אל ארץ אבותינו, ומה מאד היה מאושר מוצלח אם היו מניחים אותו לשוב אליה… ועיין תנא דבי אליהו שאין בעלי בתים נעקרים מן העולם ויורדים לארץ אלא בשביל שאוכלין ושותין ומבעטין מתוך טובה, ואינם עוסקים בדרך ארץ ודברי תורה, ועליהם אמר הכתוב: “תחת שלש רגזה הארץ… ונבל כי ישבע לחם,” עד כאן לשונו. ונתקיים מאמר זה באחינו בית ישראל שבמדינות בעהמען, מעהרן ואשכנז, שישבו בעשירות גדולה ובעטו כל כך עד שנשכח מאתם שהמה זרע ישראל, עד שהוכרח לשלוח אחד שיזכירם שהמה בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב.
In the midst of the Holocaust, Rav Teichtel had a lot of experience with Jews like this- Jews who became so settled in Central and Eastern Europe that they, as he writes, “נשכח מאיתם שהמה זרע ישראל- tried to make it forgotten that they were descendants of Israel.” For Jews like this who ignored the call to return to our homeland and instead made Europe their homeland, G-d unfortunately had to fulfill His promise in our parsha and He brought a punishment against the Jews who made their אחוזה the Ashkenazic countries of Europe. To them, he sent a נגע so bad and so unique that in the process of punishing them, it was also made very clear to their gentile neighbors that they are “זרע אברהם יצחק ויעקב.”
The lesson from this teaching is clear- the longer that the Jewish people are in the lands of our enemies, and the more we become affected by the culture there, only distances us from the possibility of a speedy redemption, for we’ve already seen, from the Pew Report and other statistics, that as time as goes on, more and more Jews will be lost for good. G-d has made it clear that if we distance ourselves from the גאולה, we risk bringing a נגע upon ourselves. The שואה was the latest of many of these punishments which have come every couple of generations as the Jewish nation became too comfortable at any stop in their trip through the גלות. But, as we read on ליל פסח, there is one common theme to these punishments- at the end of the day, G-d always saves us; He always enables us to continue. The punishments, like צרעת, are not to hurt us, but rather to show us that we are sinning, so that we can do תשובה. We only need to recognize this, so that we can preemptively do תשובה before G-d even has to send us a נגע.
In his commentary on the הגדה של פסח, the Maharal of Prague reveals an interesting insight into the Jews’ first גאולה, one which may very well help us as we work to bring our final one. He writes that it is no coincidence that we celebrate Pesach in ניסן, the first month of the year. At the beginning of the year, there is a certain level of תשובה- for the Jews of Egypt, it was a unique opportunity to remove the טומאה of their idolatrous host country to enable them to merit a speedy removal. This is why the passuk in פרשת ראה says “כי בחיפזון יצאת ממצרים..”- the Jews were in a rush, because had they waited much longer, they would have lost the advantage of חודש ניסן for גאולה, and would’ve had to wait at least another year for their freedom. Many millennia later, the same is true. חודש ניסן, a special month for תשובה even in biblical times, has take on an even greater significance with חג הגאולה taking place 15 days into this clean slate. For us, this presents a unique opportunity to break out of the rut that many of us find ourselves, and to remember that we are proudly זרע אברהם, יצחק, ויעקב. It is not for naught that Israel recently made National Aliyah Day on the Tenth of Nissan, which we saw last week to be the birthdate of עם ישראל and the גאולת מצרים.
Today, a few days into the month of redemption, each of us must rethink where we are now. We must ask ourselves if we are truly where we belong, if we can honestly say that we proudly call ourselves Jews. If we aren’t there yet, this first week of the new year, where we read of G-d’s warning, is an ideal time to soul-search and rethink ourselves, for חג הגאולה is rapidly approaching, and if we don’t truly desire חירות as we sing “לשנה הבא בירושלים” at the climax of זמן חירותינו, we will have lost all hope of ever getting there. With Hashem’s help, we will all merit to see the coming of the גאולה very soon.