The Torah’s treatment of a house that is contaminated by Tzora’as is quite unusual. Aside from the remarkable and exceptional notion of a house being afflicted with Tzora’as, Halacha states that a house cannot be declared as contaminated by Tzora’as unless the Tzora’as spots are visible in the house’s interior by natural sunlight. A house that has no windows cannot be classified as afflicted with Tzora’as; in such a case, there is no need to illuminate the house to check for Tzora’as – rather, the spots that appear to be Tzora’as should simply be ignored.
Although all spots that appear to be Tzora’as, be they on humans, fabrics or houses, are not deemed to be Tzora’as until formally declared as such by a Kohen, and inspection by a Kohen and his declaration of Tzora’as may be delayed temporarily under certain circumstances, the “natural sunlight” exception for a house that is contaminated by Tzora’as is permanent and totally unique.
Targum Yonasan ben Uziel (on Vayikra 14:34) explains that Tzora’as could befall a house for reason that a member of the household was a thief. As apparent punishment for this individual’s sinful ways, the house had to be emptied of all people and furnishings and declared tamei (impure), and it faced partial or total demolition, depending on the course taken by the Tzora’as. Although one would expect Tzora’as to only befall one who directly sins, it is clear from this case that all occupants of a house with Tzora’as would be affected by the house’s tamei status and potential demolition.
What is the message here? Why are all inhabitants of the house punished for the actions of one person?
Tzora’as of a house presents us with a case of family responsibility, such that the entire household is subject to punishment due to its harboring an active thief. (Chazal tell us that Tzora’as persists only when the sinner continues in his evil ways.) Members of the household who do not steal, yet who do nothing to curb the ways of its resident thief, are also held accountable.
Perhaps this sheds light (please pardon the pun J) on the “natural sunlight” rule discussed above. The notion of Tzora’as of a house, which comes about in part due to the occupants’ failure to rein in the family thief, represents on a broader scale the concept of social responsibility: When are people liable to step in and address the ill-advised ways of family members or others in their sphere of influence? The Torah’s “natural sunlight” rule may symbolize these delicate dynamics, by indicating that intervention is warranted and in fact mandatory when those in our midst are clearly doing that which is forbidden or harmful, or when there is good basis to believe such. However, there are other matters that are best left alone. (We do not speak here of situations of potential harm to individuals or the like.) In some instances, taking action may only make things worse, or may magnify issues that will resolve on their own or that are unsolvable but pose no threat. In such cases, we help no one by shining bright lights in order to expose an otherwise unnoticeable issue; it should instead be left alone and dealt with minimally, or perhaps even ignored. This is reflected by the “natural sunlight” rule and the lack of any need to summon a Kohen, or to call in experts, for evaluation and handling of the case.
This idea is further evidenced by another unusual halachic application of Tzora’as of houses. Unlike Tzora’as of people and of fabrics, in which the initial stage of the affliction (called Hesger) does not entail any lasting physical impact on the affected area, in the case of a house, even should it be declared tahor (pure) during Hesger, the area affected by Tzora’as must be carved off the house’s interior and permanently removed. The symbolism may be that when addressing the issues of people within our sphere of influence, we must realize that any intervention will impact in some way, and unless the intervention is truly warranted (and is of course conducted with extreme care), the person whom we seek to help can instead be harmed. Bringing to light the issues or flaws of a person or his errant ways, irrespective of the best of intentions by the intervening party, can at times be detrimental to the person we are trying to help. Unless intervention is clearly or at least likely necessary, or there is a possibility of danger to people, it may be best to leave matters alone and not shed light on them, lest the negative risks of intervention exceed the potential scope or magnitude of the problem and inevitably end up harming the person we seek to assist, just as a house with Tzora’as must inevitably be damaged as part of its treatment regimen once it enters the initial stage of Tzora’as.
Obviously, and as stated above, all risks of harm must be addressed with full attention, seriousness and force. However, when the issues are of a nonthreatening nature, our sense of responsibility to take action in relation to those in our sphere of influence must be based on a considered, balanced and realistic approach. Rather than engage in potentially damaging redress in quest of pristine purification, we are sometimes advised to put away the flashlights and allow the situation to remain somewhat less than perfect, but nevertheless acceptable and pure, even on a mere technical level.
We live in an age in which nearly every unpleasant behavior is labeled as a serious problem and every bizarre opinion that appears on the internet is given a platform and elevated to the status of a new school of thought. The Torah instructs us to be discerning and realistic, and only to bring to light concerns that truly warrant such. And, when action must be be taken, it has to be done with forethought and, as the case may necessitate, with comprehensiveness and vigor, so that, similar to Tzora’as, the problem can be effectively contained or eliminated as need be.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.