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Naomi Graetz

The Rot in the House: Parshat Metzora

Not too many parts of this week’s parshat metzora speak to me. However, since my mother had an asthma attack when exposed to mold in a summer camp where she was working, I identified with the part of the parsha which is about a kind of plague that takes over the house.

The text starts with God speaking to Moses and Aaron, saying:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague נֶ֣גַע צָרַ֔עַת  upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague נֶ֣גַע has appeared upon my house.” The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house. If, when he examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall return. If he sees that the plague has spread on the walls of the house, the priest shall order the stones with the plague in them to be pulled out and cast outside the city into an impure place. The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an impure place. They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house. If the plague again breaks out in the house, after the stones have been pulled out and after the house has been scraped and replastered, the priest shall come to examine: if the plague has spread in the house, it is a malignant eruption צָרַ֨עַת מַמְאֶ֥רֶת in the house; it is impure. The house shall be torn down—its stones and timber and all the coating on the house—and taken to an impure place outside the city. Whoever enters the house while it is closed up shall be impure until evening. Whoever sleeps in the house must wash those clothes, and whoever eats in the house must wash those clothes. If, however, the priest comes and sees that the plague has not spread in the house after the house was replastered, the priest shall pronounce the house pure, for the plague has healed (Leviticus 14: 33-57).

Once the house is pronounced pure, the priest offers sacrifices to purge the house and the house will be expiated of its rot, its plague, its impurity, its malignancy. It is ironic reading this chapter before Passover. We clean our house from top to bottom, fumigating with economika (bleach), removing hametz!!!  And at the same time, we cannot lose sight of the mass destruction of homes that were once sanctuaries of safety and love, now symbols of devastation and ruin. This recent destruction/plague came from the outside, not from within. Our ancient sages who experienced too many mass evacuations and destruction of homes, were clearly disturbed by the idea of homes being physically destroyed and then having to wait for priestly approval for building permits to rebuild again. They preferred to say there were no such cases. In the Babylonian Talmud a question is raised about an opinion taught in a source parallel to the Mishnah (a baraita):

There has never been a house afflicted with leprosy of the house and there will never be one in the future. And why, then, was the passage relating to leprosy of the house written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning (B Sanhedrin 71a).

So with the “blessings” of our sages, that is what I will do; though I’m not sure if I will receive a heavenly reward for my expansion of this idea.

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF ISRAEL

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, when Marcellus states, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ he is talking about Denmark’s relationship with Norway. But he is also talking symbolically about Hamlet’s stepfather’s corruption, its effect on the state, since his crime has gone unpunished. The house of Denmark is in a state of rot.

In our parsha I see the rotting house as a metaphor for both sinning Israel (then and today) and its leaders (then and today). The plague is manifested both without and within. The house has to be cleansed, destroyed and then presumably be rebuilt. But if the rot has settled in so deeply that it cannot be gotten rid of, as in Hamlet, heads will fall, people will die, and there will be collateral damage (like Ophelia’s death).

A PLAGUE ON BOTH OUR HOUSES

And as long as we are quoting Shakespeare, I wonder sometimes if we are doomed in this land to experience plague forever. Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet curses when he says “a plague on both your houses”. He blames both the Montagues and Capulets for what has happened. Both sides are at fault and the feud between the families has gone on too long.  Our slings and arrows are getting more and more dangerous. Read into this what you may for what is happening in our part of the world. There is trickle down sin. At some point we have to make decisions on how we wish to lead our lives. Hamlet in Act 3 says it best:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make

I had thought of highlighting certain words, however, I would suggest that you read the previous passage out loud as I did (more than once)  and you will realize what an amazing commentary this passage is on current events.

Shabbat shalom and Hag Pesach Sameach

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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