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Metzorah 5776-2016

“G-d Has Pity on the Property of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, opens with a detailed description of the purification ritual for the מְצוֹרָע–Metzorah, the person who had contracted the צָרַעַת–Tzara’at disease, and is now cured. According to tradition, this spiritual/dermatological disease resulted from, among other things, speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָע –Lashon Harah, evil speech about others ( Tazria 5763-2003). The parasha also introduces an additional manifestation of the Tzara’at disease that appears in the houses of the Israelites.

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Biblical narrative is out of chronological order. Although mentioned last in the text, the first manifestation of the Tzara’at disease appears on a wall in the Jew’s home as a warning that he or she must mend their ways and stop speaking Lashon Harah. If they do not heed this admonition, the Tzara’at then appears on their clothes. If they still continue their evil speech, only then does the Tzara’at appear on their bodies. The final stage is reached when the person’s entire body is covered with Tzara’at.

 

If the affliction strikes the house of a Jew, the Kohen must come to inspect the apparently mildew-like blight on the house. If it is not clear whether the discoloration is the actual Tzara’at disease, the house is sealed for seven days and is reinspected at the end of this incubation period. If, the infected area is then declared טָמֵא–Tah’may, unclean, the infected stones must be removed and the walls of the home replastered. If, however, the infection recurs, the entire house must be destroyed.

Despite the loss of the house, the neighbors may still be unaware that the reason the house was demolished was due to the Tzara’at plague. As an alibi, the violator can always claim that his family is remodeling their home, and no one will know that the loss was because of the homeowner’s improper behavior.

The affliction on one’s wardrobe is similar. If the infection spreads throughout the clothing, then all the clothing must be destroyed. Still the victim can always say that he is in the process of buying a new wardrobe, and no one would know that all the clothing was burned due to evil speech.

The unrepentant violator, who, after all this, has still not learned his lesson, is then further stricken with symptoms that appear on the flesh of his body. If the spots on his skin are declared Tah’may (impure) by the priest, he is sent out of the camp for seven days. Yet, he can always claim that he is going on vacation. When he returns, he can cover over the infection and nobody will ever know that he was sent away because the Kohen declared that he is a בַּעַל לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, a “master of evil speech.”

Obviously, excuses can only hide the true reason for this malady for so long. If, after all this, he still does not repent, the violator’s entire body is covered with the disease and the Kohen declares him טָהוֹר–Tahor, pure, allowing him to remain in the camp. Despite being entirely covered with the Tzara’at symptoms, he is pure. The disease has now become public and he will be regarded by all as a destructive speaker of evil, who must be avoided.

As is true in many instances, the Torah conveys subtle lessons through seemingly innocuous verses. The Torah’s description of the visit of the Kohen who is assigned to diagnose the affliction found in the house, is one such an instance.

The Torah states, in Leviticus 14:36, that even before the Kohen enters the house, וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וּפִנּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע, וְלֹא יִטְמָא כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת, וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת, he [the Kohen] shall command, and they shall clear the house when the Kohen has not yet come to look at the affliction, so that everything in the house should not become impure; and afterward shall the Kohen come to look at the house.

Rashi explains that everything in the house will automatically become impure if the house is not emptied before the Kohen sees the affliction and pronounces it impure.

Everything declared impure in the house then has to be purified by taking it to the mikveh. The only two items in the house that cannot be made pure again are food and earthen vessels. However, food that is impure may be still eaten as long as the person who eats the food is also in a state of ritual impurity. Earthenware dishes can also be used in a state of impurity, as long as the person who uses them is in a state of impurity.

Rashi explains that the reason for removing all the belongings from the stricken home is that the Torah has pity on property that belongs to Israel. But, after all, as has already been noted, very little is actually lost, since all the furnishings and the vessels in the house, with the exception of earthenware, can be immersed in the mikveh, and even the food can be eaten in a state of ritual impurity. The only real loss is the earthenware vessels, which can only be used in a state of ritual impurity, or else they have to be destroyed. But earthenware vessels are relatively inexpensive, resulting in only a negligible loss to the homeowner.

Citing the Sifra and Rashi, the ArtScroll commentary explains that beyond the Al-mighty’s intention to spare Israel from even trivial financial losses, this particular Torah portion comes to teach an important lesson. “If G-d is so sympathetic toward wicked people, whom he afflicts with Tzara’at, surely He has compassion for the righteous. And if G-d is so concerned about their property, surely He is concerned for the lives of their sons and daughters.”

How often do we say to ourselves that we cannot be bothered with trivial things? How often do we say to ourselves that our time is much too valuable to stop for a moment to help a person who is sad or crying? How often do we allow ourselves to get distracted and fail to hold the door open for the next person, or too preoccupied to say “Thank you” to someone who has done us a favor?

Fortunately, for the Al-mighty, nothing is too trivial. Otherwise, not only His people, Israel, but all of humankind, would be in big trouble.

As we enter the month of Nissan, the month of Passover and the acknowledged month of redemption, we must realize how fortunate we are that the Al-mighty surely graced us when He heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and did not decide that it was too trivial for Him to address their needs and redeem the people.

As we, once again, annually re-experience the exodus from exile, enslavement and persecution to freedom, we need to express our profound gratitude to the Al-mighty for His constant kindness, for always watching over His People Israel, and for redeeming them.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th.