Parashat Metzora

The Cursed House

The image of a house afflicted with a plague encourages us to examine what real and metaphorical plagues afflict our own homes and societies.

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[Similarly, leprosy of houses is no natural phenomenon at all] and existed nowhere else in the world [outside Israel]. But so long as the Israelites were in harmony with God, Adonai's spirit was always upon them, to preserve the healthy appearance of their bodies, garments, and houses. Whenever one of them committed a sin, he would suffer a discoloration of his skin, garments, and house, indicating that Adonai had departed from him. This is the meaning of the text "When you enter the land of Canaan, which I gave you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess…" [Leviticus 14:34]. It was then a plague inflicted by Adonai upon that house (Nachmanides on Leviticus 13:47).

Pinchas Peli also links the sin of lashon hara to the skin infections and fungus mentioned in our Torah portion. He defines lashon hara as "slander, gossip, talebearing, and all the other forms of damage to the individual and society that may be caused by words." The result of such wrongdoing, says Peli, is a "justly deserved punishment--leprosy, an illness that cannot be hidden" (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p. 125).

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The appearance of tzaraat in the stones of a house was a mysterious event. Some Sages doubted it ever happened, and others consigned it to a distant past. Commentators consider the afflicted house (habayit ham'nugga) to be a moral warning rather than a natural occurrence even more emphatically than they consider cases of skin disease to be a moral warning. They fasten on the words "I inflict" [Leviticus 14:34] to deduce that this was a plague sent by God. A home is a family's private refuge. Thus a home afflicted by plague represents the breakdown of the social values that kept a family safe and united. It was a cause for concern if the problems of society-at-large had come to infect the home. Most commentators suggest that the antisocial behavior that brought the plague to the house was selfishness, a blindness to the needs of others (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 664).

The changes from the normal appearance has no parallel in nature but constitutes a sign and wonder that existed in Israel in order to warn them away from evil talk. He who indulges in evil talk finds that the walls of his house change color (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, N'gaim 12:5).

A plague o' both your houses! They have made worms' meat of me (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1, l. 112).

"Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." [Leviticus 14:35]. Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that he definitely noticed a plague but rather state, "There seems to me to be a plague" (Rashi on Leviticus 14:35).

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Rabbi Fred Reiner

Rabbi Fred Reiner is the senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, Washington, D.C.