(Thoughts on Parashat Metzora for Shabbat Hagadol 5779/2019)
Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 4/12/19
This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol/ “The Great Sabbath” – our tradition’s nickname for the last Shabbat before the start of Passover.
This Shabbat is also the second of two Shabbatot when the weekly Torah portion deals with “tzara’at.” Old translations of the Torah translated the Hebrew word “tzaraat” as “Leprosy,” but Jewish commentators throughout the centuries have been clear that whatever “tzara’at” is, it’s not that.
What exactly is it? If a person is “Metzora” which is to say, if a person is afflicted with “Tzara’at” what does that mean? The Jewish Publication Society translation that we follow translates tzaraat as an “eruptive plague”, but it’s still difficult to figure out what that means, since the term “tzaraat” in the Torah is applied to various seemingly unrelated phenomena including skin conditions, discolorations on articles of clothing and --- in this week’s Torah portion – colored streaks in the walls of brick houses.
With respect to the latter phenomenon, the Torah introduces the topic in this weeks Torah portion, Parashat Metzora, at Leviticus 14: 34-38 as follows:
34 When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, 35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." 36 The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become unclean; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house. 37 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, 38 the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days.
What shall we do with such a weird law?
Well, for one thing, there’s a teaching in the Talmud that says we should treat this all as a symbolic allegory. As we learn in Tractate Sanhedrin 71a:
בית המנוגע לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר
“A house inflicted with plague never occurred and never will occur in the future. So why is it written? To study it and to be rewarded for studying it.”
But that still begs the question: What are we supposed to learn from studying it?
One traditional response comes from taking a closer look at the language of Leviticus 14:34. The Jewish Publication Society translation of this verse says:
“When you enter the land of Canaan and I INFLICT an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess….”
But the original Hebrew says “VENATATI” which doesn’t literally mean “and I inflict.” The literal translation of “VENATATI” is “I will give!”
And, according to some of the classic commentators , the expression VENATATI – “I WILL GIVE” (from the root nun-tav-nun) implies “MATANAH” a gift (That is to say the words “venatati” and “matanah” are derived from the same Hebrew root)….
But how can a plague be a GIFT?
Rashi quotes an old midrash that says that when the Israelites would enter the Land of Israel and occupy houses abandoned by previous inhabitants, that the plague in the walls would lead them to knock down the walls and that when they did so they would find buried treasures of gold.
I guess this is another way of expressing the well-known idea that even our worst tragedies can have a silver lining.
But that’s still hard to accept when one is in the midst of a crisis or in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. Sometimes it just takes time before we can find the gift, the blessing, in the challenges that life places before us.
Another interpretation of tzaraat as a gift is found in the Talmud in Tractate Arachin where the plague is considered a “gift” in the sense that it serves as a timely warning of one’s own character flaws. Just like the pain one senses when touching a burning stove is a gift in the sense of alerting us to pull our hand back before it gets even more hurt.
Here’s what the Talmud in Tractate Arachin says about this:
אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב (ויקרא יד) זאת תהיה תורת המצורע זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע
“Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse: “This shall be the ritual concerning the metzora”. (Lev. 14:2) It means “this shall be the ritual concerning “motzi shem ra” (one who speaks calumny)”
In other words -- one who speaks ill of another, one who engages in lashon hara/ evil speech.
Rashi says that the divine warning to watch one’s tongue first appears in the walls of one’s house, then, if not heeded, appears in one’s clothing and finally, if not heeded, on one’s body. All to try to tell us to be more sensitive regarding the way we speak to or about others.
That seems especially important in times like these when ideological battles divide our country to an extent that we have seldom seen in modern times. As candidates start gearing up for next year’s national elections it still remains to be seen whether the winning candidate will be the one who manages to mobilize their own hyperpartisan base or whether it will be the one who manages to reconcile at least some of the divisions that distance us from one another. I, personally, am betting on the latter.
Another moral lesson that the Torah gives us in Parashat Metzora concerns the importance of being charitable and generous. For this interpretation, the Talmud in Tractate Yoma focuses on the language used in Leviticus 14:35.
The JPS translation that I read you a few moments ago for this verse renders it like this:
35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." 3
However, that translation smoothes out the Hebrew, which, if translated literally, is a little clunkier. The beginning of the verse doesn’t actually say “the owner of the house shall come.” Rather it says –
וּבָא אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ הַבַּיִת
“The one that to him is the house” comes and says to the Kohen --- Something like a plague, it seems to me is in the house.”
The Talmud asks – why does the Torah use that awkward locution? Why does it say “the one that to him is the house”-- or, more specifically, what does the language “to him” imply:
And it gives the following answer:
“Why then ‘to him’? [That means to say that] if one devotes his house to himself exclusively, refusing to lend his belongings by pretending he did not own them, the Holy One, blessed be God, exposes him as he removes his belongings. Thus ‘to him’ excludes [from the infliction of the house plague] him who lends his belongings to others.”
This refers to a midrash:
It is written, "The produce of his house will disappear, they shall flow away in the day of His anger" (Iyov 20), they will flow away and be found. When? On the day that the Holy One arouses His anger against that person. How does this come about? A person says to his neighbor, "Lend me a kav of wheat." The neighbor replies: "I have none." "Then a kav of barley?" "I have none." A woman says to her neighbor: "Lend me a sifter." She replies, "I have none." "Lend me a sieve?" She replies, "I have none." What does the Holy One do? He brings a plague on the house, and when the man is forced to take out all of his belongings, everyone sees and they say, "Didn't he say that he had nothing? Look how much wheat he has! How much barley! How many dates there are here!" (Vayikra Rabba 17)
And so what we learn from this midrash is that we should be generous in our dealings with others.
It is in that spirit that we also concern ourselves with the poor and needy in our society.
And it is in that spirit that we will say at our Passover seder tables next week:
“All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them celebrate Passover with us.”
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg
Nisan 5779/ April 2019
 Yoma 11b