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Putting One’s House in Order

Much of the legislation in Parshat Metzora strikes moderns as, at best, enigmatic. What are we to do with a malady which strikes at one’s house or clothing? The Torah states: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, ‘When you come into the land of Canaan which I am about to give to you as a holding, I (God) put the scaly affliction in the house of the land… the affliction is in the walls of the house… the priest shall charge that they pull out the stones in which the affliction is and fling them outside the town…” (Leviticus 14) The rabbinic sages already did not see this legislation as a public health regulation. It is even unlikely that these laws ever had application, certainly not in rabbinic times. Instead, the sages saw these laws as a mean to inculcate proper social behavior.

As an aside, one might ask what gave the sages “the right” to veer so radically from the “pshat” or plain meaning of Scripture. While it is well known that the rabbinic tradition postulates that Scripture has different layers of meaning, some might ask what makes these layers God’s words. I will answer that question by reminding the reading that two parties were involved in the process of divine revelation – the “Revealer – God” and the “listener – the Children of Israel”. The listener is not a passive participant in this process. Listeners are interpreters and their role in revelation is every bit as active as that of God. Consequently, when the sages invest the Torah with “interpreted” meaning, that too is Torah.

People are likely familiar with the rabbinic association of this “metzora” (for lack of better terminology, the leper) with the social ill of gossip or evil talk. The rabbis, in fact, composed a veritable catalogue of social ills which could be associated with this “sickness”. (See Leviticus Rabbah 17:3) I brought the following midrash as an example because I found it particularly intriguing:

This is what is written, “That one’s household will be cast forth by a flood, Spilled out on the day of God’s wrath” (Job 20:28). When will this happen? On the day that anger of the Holy One of Blessing will be stirred up against that person. How would it happen? When a person says to their neighbor, “could you lend me a kav [roughly 1.5 liters] of wheat?” And they reply, “I don’t have any.” “A kav of barley?” “I don’t have any.” “A kav of dates?” “I don’t have any.” Or a woman says to her neighbor, “could you lend me a strainer?” And she replies, “I don’t have one.” “Could you lend me a sieve?” And she replies, “I don’t have one.” What does the Holy One of Blessing do? The plague erupts within that house, and while the person is bringing out their possessions, the people see, and say, “Didn’t they say they didn’t have anything at all?! Look at how much wheat there is, how much barley, how many dates there are! A cursed house with these curses!”… Therefore, Moshe cautioned Israel (Vayikra 14:34), “When you enter the land of Canaan…”. (Adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 17:2, Margulies ed. pp. 373-4)

This form of midrash is called a petikha, meaning that it opens by interpreting the verse from Job in order to wind its way back to this week’s Torah reading. It takes the verse from Job out of its original context and interprets it to mean that God will find a means to reveal a person’s mean-spiritedness for all to see.  The description of the afflicted house, then. becomes for the sages a cautionary tale so that people might be reminded to avoid what the sages called “tzarat ayin – miserliness” – an unwillingness to aid others.

The sages have transformed God’s message in the Torah from being about ritual impurity into one of social and moral import intended to encourage social concern and cohesiveness – that is certainly a message which God could buy into.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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