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|…It is the plague of tzaraat. The Priest shall examine him and pronounce him ritually unclean (13:3).
Some time ago, a good friend made the following points:
“Small minds talk about others.
“Ordinary minds talk about events.
“Great minds talk about good ideas.
“But the best minds put the ideas into positive and creative action.”
The Rambam, in his Commentary on the Mishna (Avot 1:17) brings the story of a certain wise man that was asked why he was always quiet when he sat in the company of others. He answered that
“As to the first three categories,” the wise man said, “I don’t talk about them at all. As to the fourth, I would talk about it, but I would be considered strange in a society which does not understand such matters, and that is why I remain silent.”
This Parasha focuses on the plague of tzaraat. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not ‘leprosy’ as we understand it – but a Divinely imposed sign of moral deficiency. The Kli Yakar (on 13:2) divides the spiritual causes of tzaraat into three groups:
Common to all groups is small-mindedness – as above. Such individuals feel ill-will towards the situation and possessions of others. The wise man referred to by the Rambam felt uneasy and unhappy in the company of such people. So, for that matter, do many decent people living today.
This point helps us explain the famous story brought by the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 16:2)
A certain peddler would wander among the towns near Tzippori, calling out, “Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?” All the people would assemble before him. R. Yannai was sitting and studying. He said to him, “Come here and sell it to me.” He said to him, “You and others like you do not need it!” (R. Yannai) begged him to explain, so the peddler came over and brought him the book of Tehillim (Psalms) and showed him the verse: “Who is the man who desires life? …Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.”(Psalms 34:13). R. Yannai said, “King Solomon said the same thing – ‘Whoever guards his tongue and his mouth, guards his soul from troubles’” (Proverbs 21:23). R. Yannai said, “All my life I would read this verse… and I did not know where it was explained until that peddler came and informed me ‘What man is he that desires life?’ Moses therefore warned Israel: “This is the law of the metzora – motzi ra” (someone who speaks evil about someone else).
What, precisely, did the peddler tell R. Yannai that he did not know previously?
One suggestion may be found in looking at the following verses in Deuteronomy (20:1,5-7).
When you go to war against your enemy… the officers shall speak to the people saying: “Which man has built a house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. Which man has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will redeem it. Which man has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will marry her.”
These three things – the vineyard, the house, and getting married have the following thing in common: they are, or should be, creative and procreative. Success in these activities gives a person a feeling that he has given of himself, achieved something solid and permanent, and produced something good that will outlive him. These projects also ought to enrich the lives of other people. Such operations are so central to the core of one’s spiritual well-being that the Torah ordained that if a person is in the process of completing any of them, he do so, and only then serve at the front.
With that idea, let us return to consider the words of the peddler. What really gives us life? By watching what we say, and by avoiding gossip, we find ourselves keeping away from the small-mindedness of those who speak lashon hara - a spiritually destructive force. We fill our social vacuum by sharing ideas with people who radiate positive mental attitudes, whose ideas and work advances the Creation. As stated earlier on, great minds talk about good ideas; only good comes out of discussing wisdom. We have gone to a higher plane of life that nurtures the soul rather than debases the soul – to spiritually creative forces.
The highest form of creativity is action – more important than words! (Avot 1:17) Our Creator’s approval for genuine creative and procreative activity as a force that brings out our highest qualities is seen in His specifying that people so involved should be excused from fighting at the front.
That is what the peddler taught R. Yannai. The elixir of life is avoiding spiritually destructive forces… That is the first step into tapping into spiritually creative forces, as nature abhors a vacuum…
When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place the plague of tzaraat upon a house in the land of your possession…(13:34). This last form of tzaraat mentioned in this part of the Torah is that which affects homes. On the first substantiated appearance the affected parts of the walls were to be removed, and if the plague recurred, the whole house had be knocked down. Note that R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, amongst many others, writes that tzaraat is not ‘leprosy’ as we understand it – but a Divinely imposed sign of moral deficiency.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 17:6) states the following tradition. The above verse implies a blessing for the house owner, within the unpleasantness of tzaraat. For the Emorites hid their valuables in the walls of their homes to prevent them from falling into the hands of the conquering Israelites. The enforced removal of parts of the walls, or the entire destruction of the house, would release those hidden treasures.
Two questions present themselves.
Firstly, the texts that deal with tzaraat in people and garments are brought together. The separate section on tzaraat in houses follows only later on. Why are the three types of tzaraat not presented in the same section? What is special about the tzaraat of homes which merits a special part in the Torah?
Secondly, how does one understand the Midrashic tradition which states that the house-owner may be rewarded with hidden treasure? For, as stated above, tzaraat is a sign of moral deficiency. According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 17:2), the reason that all the contents of the house are to be removed before the Priest (Cohen) inspects is not just to prevent their contamination if the house is declared impure. It brings an additional reason – it is a corrective for the selfishness that brought about the tzaraat in the first place. As R. Zev Leff writes in Shiurei Bina, selfish people often pretend that they possess less than they really do in order to avoid a situation where they will be required to lend others their possessions, or contribute to some worthy cause. Having to remove all ones possessions in public causes acute embarrassment and helps to atone for and correct lack of generosity. Why does the Torah, according to the Midrash, imply that the selfish will be rewarded?
One basic principle towards answering these questions has already been incorporated within the second question above. It is found in the Talmud (Arachin 16a) which states that tzaraat finds itself in houses just because of the meanness of the owner!
The Chida expands this idea. The reason the Torah introduces the section of tzaraat on houses with ‘when you come into the land of Canaan’ is because it was only then that the Israelites began to settle down – after having been constantly on the move during the previous forty years. Once people live in security, they may begin to place their trust in their wealth and property. They forget that the Land belongs to the Almighty and that we are His tenants (25:23). Thus when this section opens up with the words: “I give you this land as an inheritance,” it means that I gave it to you on My terms – you received it out of My generosity, and you shall likewise show generosity to others. Having failed to do so, “I will put the plague of tzaraat in (your) homes…”
However, the Torah states that when the Almighty chastises His people, He does not act harshly in the first instance, but “as a father chastises his son” (Deut. 8:5) – with love, with positive correction, and with experiences from which he can learn the correct path.
The Torah does not object to wealth, but it does imply guidelines as to how that wealth should be used. One person, whose large-scale tzedaka (support of worthy causes) is well known, put it this way. “Money is like fertilizer – pile it up in one place and it does no good. Spread it around and it works wonders!”
So the first stage ordained by the Torah, in dealing with this form of tzaraat, implemented positive correction for the stingy and mean house-owner. Firstly he had to remove all the moveable items out of his home. Having to take them out of his house and seeing his own home without a stick of furniture inside gives him a glimpse of what it is like to live in a home where people are in real need.
If the plague does indeed spread, he is required to remove the section of the wall that contains tzaraat. R. Zeev Zechariah Breuer (Siach Hashulchan, p. 119) suggest that having to knock such a new ‘window’ is a symbol and a lesson that his home should be open to those who genuinely need him.
The treasures found in the stonework of the house have yet another lesson to teach. When a person finds the wealth that was left by the vanquished nations within the very fabric of the house, G-d is in effect saying to him, “It is I, the Almighty, who supplies your wealth. Do not think that by hoarding it you will be any better off that if you handle it according to the Torah guidelines.”
In support of this point a friend with a large family and a limited income told me that following. “When I starting giving maaser kesafim (one tenth of one’s income to tzedaka), I suddenly found that my financial situation became much better. Logically it should have been the reverse…”
These points therefore answer the original questions. Lashon hara (gossip) and gasut ruach (conceit) are the spiritual causes of tzaraat in people and in garments. These character traits have no place whatsoever in the Torah way of life. The Torah treats the tzaraat coming from the root cause of the desire to accumulate wealth as a separate issue. The Torah condemns gossip and slander. But the Torah does approve of generating and enjoying wealth and a high standard of living. After all, local and national economies and society’s well-being depend on individuals having capital to invest – in an honorable manner. But the Torah expects us to treat our wealth with the generosity that was characteristic of Abraham’s care and concern for the three ‘men’… And should the Israelites stray from that ideal, G-d would impose tzaraat on the home to impress the importance of caring for the needs of others on the wealthy owners.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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