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‘Proclamation’ Parashat Metzora 5782

We were just about to board our flight when I heard, “We have an announcement for passengers flying on United Flight 1568…” Despair immediately began to set in. Never in my years of flying have I heard an announcement that said, “All passengers are being upgraded to business class.” Lo and behold, the gate attendant announced that the aircraft battery was inexplicably dead and that they would have to try to find a replacement[1].

While an “announcement” can contain either good news or bad news, a “proclamation” almost exclusively contains good news. Examples include the Emancipation Proclamation, and the verse that appears on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia [Vayikra 25:10]: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” This definition makes one verse in the portion of Metzora particularly puzzling. The topic at hand is “tzara’at” of the home. Tzara’at is a condition that can affect human skin, clothing, as well as homes. Tzara’at has been misclassified as a fungus or even leprosy but it is neither. Rather, the Talmud in Tractate Arachin [15b] teaches that tzara’at is the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise and is often a punishment for derogatory speech (lashon hara). The Torah begins its discussion of tzara’at of the home with the following words [Vayikra 14:34]: “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, I will place a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession”. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, makes the following comment: “This is a proclamation for them that lesions of tzara’at will come upon [their houses]”. A proclamation! What great news! Our new home has developed tzara’at and now we have to demolish it[2]! This is not a proclamation – it sounds much more like an announcement. Rashi explains why it is indeed a proclamation: “[This is actually good news] 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.” Tzara’at of the home is actually an indication that just under the surface lies a pot of gold.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not this announcement is actually a “proclamation”, what is it about the verse that might indicate that it is a proclamation? Prima facie, the verse is an “announcement”: Certain houses are going to contract tzara’at and they will need to be destroyed. Yes, some of these homes may contain hidden treasure but what of a home in the twenty-first century that was not built by the Canaanites? The commentators over the years have proposed an array of indicators that, yea verily, this verse is a proclamation. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel a century after Rashi, suggests that tzara’at would be first inflicted upon a person’s home and only afterward, if the person did not right his ways, would it be inflicted upon his body. This kindness is a proclamation. Obviously, the problem with this explanation is that the Torah introduces the concept of tzara’at of the body before it introduces tzara’at of the home, suggesting that on a chronological axis, tzara’at of the home is preceded by tzara’at of the body[3].

When trying to understand a knotty section of the Torah, it is always a good idea to look for a “key word” – a word that appears with abnormal frequency during the course of a section under analysis. In the discussion of tzara’at of the home, it is clear that the key word is “home” – “bayit”. In the nineteen verses that pertain to the topic, the word “bayit” is repeated no less than twenty-nine times. In some verses, the word “bayit” appears three times [Vayikra 14:38]: “The kohen shall go out of the house (bayit) to the entrance of the house (bayit), and he shall quarantine the house (bayit) for seven days”. In this verse, the last two usages of the word are completely gratuitous. What does the word “bayit” come to teach?

Rabbi Aron Moss, a contemporary rabbi living in Sydney, can give us some traction. Discussing the ten plagues of Egypt, Rabbi Moss writes, “The second plague is called in Hebrew “Tzefardeya”. This is always translated as “Frogs”. But the original Hebrew is in the singular. The translation should be “Frog”. Now indeed, it is a little awkward to translate it literally, the Plague of a Frog. One frog hopping around does not seem like much of a plague… so why is frog singular? Talmudic tradition explains that actually, the plague of frogs started with one single frog. A large frog emerged from the Nile River. The Egyptians saw it, and knowing that Moses had warned them there would be a plague of frogs, attacked the giant frog with sticks. As they struck the frog, it started spewing hundreds and thousands of little frogs, which quickly spread over the entire land. The more they hit, the more frogs appeared. So indeed the plague started with a frog singular. It was the Egyptian reaction that caused frogs plural. Those foolish Egyptians were attacking the frog, but ignoring its root cause. The plagues were only coming because the Egyptians refused to let the Israelites go free. But rather than taking a hard look at themselves and changing their cruel behaviour, the Egyptians looked at this big frog and tried to kill it. Which only led to more frogs.

There is a deep message behind this rather odd episode. Often we do the same silly thing as those Egyptians did. Rather than deal with our problems, we try to take away the consequences. We attack the symptoms but not the cause, the outside manifestation of an issue rather than our own part in it. And things only get worse. We get upset at our spouse for pointing out our flaws, rather than facing the flaws themselves. We lose patience with our kids who are misbehaving, while the main reason for their playing up is because we don’t have patience to really listen to them in the first place. We throw sharp objects at our computer for taking too long to warm up just when we need to view an important document for a meeting starting in two minutes. And then for some reason the computer doesn’t work at all. We hit these frogs, and all we get is more frogs.

I suggest that the Torah’s “proclamation” of tzara’at of the home is in its revelation of the root cause of tzara’at – the home, itself. One’s behaviour does not evolve in a vacuum. It is shaped by both nature and by nurture. Often we hear our children and even our grandchildren saying things or acting in a way that they could have learned only from us. Sometimes this makes us smile but all too often, it does not. Do we really want our children to treat us exactly the same way we treat our parents? Do we want them to speak about their friends the same way we speak about ours? Tzra’at begins in the home. This is a “proclamation” because only if we recognize the root cause of tzara’at, can we begin to treat it.

But there is more: Referring back to the verse introducing tzara’at of the home, notice that the verse specifies the location of the home: “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession …upon a house in the land of your possession”. Based on this verse our Sages teach that tzara’at of the home affects only homes built in the Land of Israel. Why is this so? Continuing down our path, we should notice that another “key word” appears in this verse: “Possession (achuza)”.  The Oxford dictionary defines a “homeland” as “an autonomous or semiautonomous state occupied by a particular people”. For the Jewish people, the Land of Israel is far more than that. Rabbi A.Y. Kook, who lived in Israel in the first part of the last century, writes [Orot Israel 1] “The land of Israel has an intrinsic meaning. It is connected to the Jewish people with the knot of life… Therefore, it is impossible to appreciate the content of the sanctity of the Land of Israel and to actualize the depth of love for her by some rational human understanding – only by the spirit of G-d that is in the soul of Israel.” Our national DNA has a geographical component. If the root cause of tzara’at begins at home, then the root of the root cause begins in our homeland. Over the years, Israelis have earned a less-than-stellar reputation for our interpersonal relationships. We tend to be somewhat brusque and short-tempered. Living in a pressure cooker is no excuse. To prevent the spread of tzara’at, we must address its root cause as a nation and as a family. We cannot let the Torah’s proclamation turn into yet another announcement.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Thankfully, another airline lent us a battery, reducing the delay to “only” two hours.

[2] A house that is positively diagnosed with tzara’at must be demolished.

[3] The Ramban addresses this question, see also the Or HaChaim HaKadosh ad loc.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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