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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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Priestly rituals to cure tzara-at (skin affliction) when it afflicts humans are described. (14:1-32)

  • Rituals to rid dwelling places of tzara-at are presented. (14:33-57)

  • The parashah denotes male impurities resulting from a penile discharge or seminal emission. (15:1-18)

  • The parashah concludes with accounts of female impurities caused by a discharge of blood. (15:19-33)

Focal Point

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, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." 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. If, when he examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks, which appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house and close up the house for seven days (Leviticus 14:34-38).

Your Guide

Why is the owner of the house tentative about describing what he or she sees, as demonstrated by his or her saying "Something like a plague…" in Leviticus 14:35?

Why must the house be cleared and quarantined before the priest enters it?

Why is it important to determine if the plague is invasive, appearing "to go deep into the wall?"

Why is the priest called in to make the diagnosis?

By the Way…

Our Rabbis…stated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a): "The house affected by the plague never existed and is not destined to exist. It was stated for the purpose of edification." Alshikh follows this view, but adds that the plague teaches us that society should take notice of the first sign of misconduct, however small. Just the same as a disease begins with hardly noticeable symptoms and can be stopped if detected in time, so a moral disease in society can be prevented from spreading if immediate steps are taken. Otherwise, it will spread throughout the community (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Leviticus, pp. 137-8).

That is the thing about toxic mold: Many of its symptoms are documented and real, but it can also be spread by suggestion and word of mouth. And lately, the slimy black growth seems to be everywhere--in stately homes and housing projects, courthouses and libraries, factories and schools. One California lawyer alone is handling mold complaints for 1,000 clients ("Haunted by Mold" by Lisa Belkin in The New York Times Magazine, August 12, 2001).

[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).

Your Guide

If, as our Sages suggest, the house affected by the plague "was stated for the purpose of edification," what does this passage teach us?

What are the plagues in our homes today? In addition to the literal understanding of mold as described by Lisa Belkin, how can we interpret the metaphor of plagues (e.g., slander and moral decay) in our homes?

How would Nachmanides and Peli suggest that we "purify" our own homes?

Deuteronomy 22:8 states that building a parapet prevents bringing bloodguilt on a house. Can houses, like people, carry responsibility or become infected?

Many modern-day plagues affect our society. How can we address and overcome afflictions such as homelessness and poverty in our own communities?

D'var Torah

Some present-day readers will find contemporary relevance in the section about tzara'at of houses (Leviticus 14:34-38), relating it to molds that we find today in many homes, regardless of economic level. Since early rabbinic times, however, Jewish commentators have understood this passage as a metaphor. Some of our homes may be afflicted with malicious gossip or baseless hatred. Other homes may show signs of sickness or affliction within families. As Rashi points out, we must be cautious when using these descriptions since the words themselves carry great weight.

Sometimes a house, representing the household, can bear an affliction and itself carry responsibility. This is not unlike the bloodguilt that can fall upon a house the construction of which is unsafe (see Deuteronomy 22:8).

"House" can also refer to the community, as in "House of Israel." How many of our communities are afflicted with poverty and homelessness? How many homes in our communities need repair and attention for them to be safely inhabitable again and become centers of life instead of centers of blight?

Our responsibility as Jews requires us to purge our own homes of the plagues that might affect them, to assume responsibility for the guilt we may carry into our houses, and to repair and restore all the dwelling places in our own communities.

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Rabbi Fred Reiner

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