Tazria-Metzora: Plague Upon Your House

Cleanse With Words

What do you do when your house gets sick?

Table for Five: Tazria-Metzora

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

He shall demolish the house, its stones, its wood, and all the [mortar] dust of the house, and he shall take [them] outside the city, to an unclean place.

– Lev. 14:45

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

“The Merciful One does not go after people’s souls straight away”, teaches the Midrash. “Negaim that come on a person will first come on one’s home. If he repents, then some stones are removed. If he does not repent, the whole house is demolished. They will then come onto his clothing. If he repents, the clothing need washing. If not, they are burned. They then come on his body. If he repents, he becomes pure. If not, then he will sit in isolation.” Sometimes, people only learn things the hard way. Life is filled with moments like this. I recall once hearing someone describe his family in-fighting coming to an end when one of the small children in the family was stricken with cancer, and the warring siblings finally made peace while visiting the hospital. What an absolutely tragic story! We must not wait for the worst-case scenario to improve ourselves and learn our lesson. We have deep moral responsibilities as human beings, and we need to become better. It’s not enough to attend the “right” Temple, sign up for the “right” political party or place the “right” sign in our yards. We need to actually do the extremely hard work of refining ourselves. We need to be more disciplined, and become more patient spouses, parents and friends. We need to become less petty and more forgiving. We must, in the privacy of our own homes, grow more refined, compassionate, and spiritual. Don’t wait.

Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, www.NerSimcha.org

This powerful verse is an important reminder of what it really means to “get clean”: not just in our homes but in the depths of our souls.

Prior to Passover, we removed chametz from our homes. The word chametz is related to “l’chimutz”, which means to sour or ferment. Before the recent holiday, we had to remove the sourness that grew in our homes through our lack of conscious caring.

This verse takes this concept even deeper as it discusses a “plague that God has inflicted upon a house” (Lev. 14:33). The verse teaches us that to truly remove that plague from the house, we must clean in the deepest places and entirely remove that sickness from our world.

Our homes here are analogous to our souls, which we dirty throughout the year by letting sourness towards others (and ourselves) ferment. Like the houses referred to in this verse, we must assess where the darkness is, destroy it, and remove that sourness inside entirely.

During this time of Counting the Omer, we have the opportunity to consciously recognize the plagues in our souls…and remove them entirely. This verse teaches us that the plagues of gossip, hate, grudges, etc. need to be brought to consciousness, and entirely eradicated. Only then can we truly be prepared for the upcoming celebration of Shavuot and God’s gift of the Torah.

May we all look deeply into our personal houses, destroy and remove our inner darkness, and receive both Torah and all of God’s blessings into our lives.

David Porush, Student, teacher, writer

Let me skip over the fantastical element of this verse: God commands desert nomads to worry about mold in some future homes?

Instead, let me focus on what we know proves the fantasy came true.

Archeologists have unearthed evidence that in the two centuries when Israelites conquered Canaan, a distinctive style of home suddenly spread through the region like 11th century BCE Levittowns, coinciding beautifully with the Bible’s own timeline. The design was strikingly different from Canaanite and Egyptian architecture, with four rooms, each having their own entrance. According to Israeli archeologist Avraham Faust, an extra room was set aside for family members who were temporarily impure.

Most cultures built around ideas of the sacred sequester menstruating women in a no-man’s land – a house or compound outside the main settlement. If a mother or sister had to stay away for several days, what did this do to family bonds? While it may have had social benefits, what mischief or temptations did it invite? This floorplan told a new story about the deepest family values: you may be impure, but you still belong with us, not banished to a liminal zone or quarantined like you’re diseased.

The four-room design gives us breathtaking material proof that the Torah is not only accurate history but also promoted a revolutionary design for living that put family integrity at the center of spiritual life. Intimacy, fidelity, and love were all entwined with holiness. The new Israelite home was an abode for body and soul.

Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, parsha teacher

As we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavous, we purify our homes: but not with sponges and Comet, as we did before Pesach, but with words of positivity.

When we fail to express sensitivity, simcha, and encouragement, we not only sever our connections to our communities, as the metzorah was temporarily banished, but we risk dismantling our physical homes, after tzaarat destroyed its walls.

Staying positive, grateful, and light-hearted, Tazria-Metzora teaches us, is what strengthens our connections to others and keeps our homes intact.

Only by consistently choosing kind and caring words can we clean our homes of the negativity that causes painful emotional separations from others. Instead of pointing out actions that bother us, we can choose to point out others’ goodness with a smile.

Instead of objecting to ideas with which we disagree, we can calmly choose to stay quiet (with a smile.) The B’nei Yissachar says our inner work as we count the Omer in preparation for receiving the Torah is to “increase the peace around us by being meticulous with our power of speech.”

One of the steps in bringing the Omer, the wheat offering, to the Bais Hamikdash on Shavous, comes from the words “tenu” and “peh,” which mean “to give your mouth” [only for peaceful words,] says the B’nai Yissachar.

By choosing only positive speech, not only do we clean our homes from the inside out, but holy words purify the air around us, the Lubavitcher Rebbe says, and keeps us connected with others.

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Temple Beth Am

The idea of tamei is one that allows people to be in relationship with each other but not prepared for relationship with God. Tahor is the absence of experience with others: sexual relationships, cleaning a dead body, etc. but allows a person to enter into sacred relationship with the Divine. It is up for debate which should be seen as more holy – tamei: living in service to human relationship or tahor: ready for Divine connection and closeness or sacrifice. 

This verse implies that a house should be broken down from the outside in – from the last trimmings to the foundation that helps it stand. However, the pieces are taken to an unclean place. What does that mean? Does it mean a place void of connection to God or a place that has a large, underserved population, where any resources may be helpful? That which built a home for someone who can no longer make use of the materials, gifting them to those in need – that is holy work. 

So maybe it is that the home is broken down so the person can recharge into their status of tahor. Ridding themselves of that which has become unusable. However, by thriving and giving in a state of tamei, this person is engaging in God’s work. May we all strive to find holiness and sacred connection in the moments that allow us to be holy in human relationships.

With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi Michael Barclay, David Porush, Yehudit Garmaise, and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

Image: Ruins from ancient Israel (Masada)

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