Commentary for Metzora

15 Apr

This week’s parshah deals with the affliction of tzara’at. Tzara’at is not a normal disease, but rather one that contains both physical and spiritual components. One is only officially declared to have Tzara’at when the physical component has been confirmed by an expert and then a declaration of ritual impurity is made by an investigating priest. Similarly, one of is only considered to be cured of the affliction once all physical symptoms have disappeared and has brought the required materials to a priest to perform the ritual for spiritual reparation and repurification. Treatment for tzara’at involved being exiled from the community until a check by a priest confirmed that the physical symptoms were no longer present, at which point the reparation ceremony would be performed to purify the afflicted person.

Tzara’at is also abnormal in that in can infect not just people but also houses, with physical symptoms appearing on the house just like they would on a person. In extreme cases, this can lead to some of the stones of the house needing to be replaced. If the diseases breaks out even after this happens, the entire house needs to be destroyed and rebuilt.

Strangely, God tells Moses that outbreaks of tzara’at on houses will only start after the Israelites have entered the Promised Land (Lev. 14:34). Rashi cites a midrash saying that this would ultimately lead to good news for those whose houses were afflicted to the point that they had to be destroyed and rebuilt because the Amorites would hide gold in the walls of their houses so that anyone who might take their houses would not be able to benefit from their treasures as well. If an Israelite lived in a house that used to belong to an Amorite and the house was struck with such severe tzara’at that it had to be torn down, the Israelite would discover the gold (which would help cover the costs of rebuilding the house).

Rashi’s comments seems quite startling as the fact that tzara’at has a spiritual component to it has always caused commentators to assume its presence must be connected to a sin of some kind, often considered to be an excess of pride. It was generally assumed that the affliction would disappear once, having been punished by removal from the community to create an environment that would force him or her to contemplate his or her actions, the sinner had identified his or her wrongdoing and was ready to repent, the lesson learned being symbolized by the combination of ezov (a very small plant) with cedar wood in the mixture for the reparation and purification ceremony, showing that one who had thought himself or herself so high has recognized how low he or she has really been. Thus, Rashi’s assertion that one being punished for a most severe form of this sin and having ignored the various spiritual warnings in the form of already having had to replace some stones in his or her house would, in the end, be monetarily rewarded for these misdeeds.

Chabad tradition holds that the mixture of ezov and cedar is not for the afflicted to focus on the idea that “I thought I was so high but now I realize I am so low,” but rather to teach that true humility is the ability to “be humble even as one stands straight and tall.” Exiling a person with tzara’at from the community is meant to cause an introspective investigation during which the person will discover what he or she has been doing wrong, but on the course of that journey, this will also cause the person to determine what he or she has been doing right. To discover the gold hidden in the afflicted house, as it were. Thus the person will not come out of the tzara’at experience feeling depressed and worthless, but will reenter the community equipped with the means to help rebuild him or herself.

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