By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
April 12, 2002
In these two portions, the Torah describes the varieties of tzara’at, which is a Divinely-imposed affliction. A source of tum’ah - which is a ritual impurity caused by physical circumstances - tzara’at creates restrictions on the activities of the afflicted party. It can affect the walls of a house, clothing, or a person.
Our Sages teach that tzara’at is sent to an Israelite who has sinned and needs to change his behavior. Hashem sends increasingly severe warnings. The first type of tzara’at that could strike was a plague on houses:
When you will come to the land of Canaan which I give to you for a possession, and I will put the plague of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession. And he whose house it is shall come and tell the priest, saying: “Something like a plague has appeared to me in the house.” Then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest comes to view the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made tamei; then afterwards the priest shall come to view the house (Vayikra 14:34-36).
Then follows a description of what is to be done: how the house is emptied of all its contents; how the Kohen examines the afflicted area; what the symptoms are of true tzara’at; how the house is closed up and reexamined, and then proclaimed tamei or tahor. Ultimately, the stricken house may need to be completely dismantled.
As derived from these verses, and as discussed in Yoma (11b-12a) and in the Rambam Laws of Tumat Tzara’at (14:6,11,14), house-tzara’at is exclusive to a house that rests on the earth and is built on the land of Israel. These laws go into effect only after the conquest and full division of the land according to the tribes and families of Israel. Furthermore, it must be in the possession of Israelites.
The words ASHER LO HA’BAYIT (whose house it is) teach us two additional ideas:
1. These laws apply only where possession of the house is definitive, where each person recognizes his own. Thus, a house in Jerusalem does not become tamei, because Jerusalem was not divided up among the tribes. On the other hand, a house owned by partners can become tamei; but a synagogue is susceptible only if it contains a residence.
2. The plague will come to punish one “whose house it is”, meaning one who keeps his house exclusively for himself. This refers to one who will not share his possessions; when asked for something, he claims not to have it. So, Hashem exposes his lying and selfishness:
“Then the priest shall command that they empty the house” and everyone will see what he really has (Arachin 16a). He has taken to extremes his natural right to claim his own territory and property, drawing the boundaries so starkly that he is unable to share. Such an attitude strikes at the foundations of community, and must be corrected.
House-tzara’at occurs only where there is ownership, but it is punishment for too much ownership. It can strike only where there is definitive possession in the land of Israel, the only place where true Jewish land ownership is possible. However, there are moral pitfalls inherent in independence. The afflicted house rests on the earth: there must be rootedness, but an aberrant rootedness is a plague.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) says that the plague on the houses is Hashem’s judgment on a “cold, stark, loveless conception of justice and rights.” It comes to one who has forgotten that to exclusiveness of rights must be added love.
The following story is told about the French general and politician, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834): The harvest of 1873 was a poor one, but the bailiffs of Lafayette’s estates had managed to fill the barns with wheat. “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat,” they said. “This is the time to sell.”
Lafayette thought of the hungry peasants in the surrounding areas. “No,” he said, “this is the time to give.”
As we learn in Pirkei Avot (5:10):
One who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” this is an average trait. And there are those who say, this is the trait of Sodom.
“One who says”: This quality is neither wicked nor pious as a starting-point for an individual. However, “there are those who say”: Once this becomes firm public policy, then it becomes the cruel egotism of Sodom. Torah society cannot endorse such extreme possessiveness.
It is ironic, but true, that it is the one who is less secure about his self-definition who will draw harsh lines between himself and others. Alternatively, one who is secure in himself can more readily share of himself with others.
Ultimately, the challenge of ownership becomes a question of balance: How does an individual prevent possession from becoming parsimony? How can one maintain an awareness of self that does not become exclusiveness? Can a society become independent and still be generous? Can a society engender self-sufficiency in its members without creating an atmosphere of self-centeredness?
This is a special time of the year in Israel. Several days ago, Israel observed Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), and in a few days it will observe Yom HaZikaron (the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers). This will be followed by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. It is a time of the year when Israelis ask themselves who they are, and what kind of society they want Israel to become. Jews the world over can proudly identify, for the first time in two millennia, with an independent Jewish state.
May it be Hashem’s will that our independence teaches us to rise above our individual domains, and to unite as a people in love and mutual responsibility.
Rabbi Avraham Fischer