“The Torah’s Home Security System”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Metzorah, the second of this week’s double parashiot, we learn how the disease tzara’at (sometimes incorrectly translated as leprosy) at times infects not only people’s bodies, but homes and residences as well.

In Leviticus 14:34 we read: “And when you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, I will place the plague of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession…”

The Torah subsequently informs us that if the owner of a home notices a red or green stain on the walls of his home, he is to immediately report it to the Priest, the Cohen. Upon arrival, the Priest instructs the owner to empty the house before entering or examining the structure. If the symptoms on the wall are inconclusive, the Cohen places the house under quarantine for seven days. If on the seventh day the Priest finds the spot lighter, the area that contained the spot must be removed by scraping and replastering. The house is then declared ritually fit.

If, however, the spot is found to be unchanged on the seventh day inspection, the Priest may quarantine the house for another seven days. If, on the thirteenth day, when the Priest inspects the spot, and it has become lighter in color, the owner must scrape off the area of the spot, replaster it and the home is declared ritually fit. In order to totally purify the house, however, the owner must bring an offering of two birds to the Temple as atonement for any sinful behavior.

If, however, after the second inspection the spot has spread, the owner is required to remove the stones on which the spots were found, scrape the surrounding area and replaster the entire house. The house is then placed under quarantine for a third seven day period, and on the nineteenth day from the first inspection the Priest visits again to see if the spot has continued to spread. If it has, the Priest orders the entire house to be demolished and the debris removed to a place beyond city limits.

As one might expect, the commentators are perplexed by this unusual set of laws. As we have explained in our analysis of previous years, most of the commentators attribute the tzara’at disease, to lashon harah–speaking evil. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) brilliantly suggests that although the biblical text is out of chronological sequence, the first signs of the tzara’at disease appear in the slanderer’s home. If the speaker of evil still does not take heed, the symptoms appear closer to his body–on his clothes. If he still does not stop his errant ways and evil speech, the symptoms then spread to his own physical body.

Once the disease is diagnosed as tzara’at, the speaker of evil must leave the camp and remain outside the camp, where the sheep and flocks graze. There is not much opportunity to speak lashon harah at that location! If however the speaker of evil still does not repent, his entire body is afflicted with the disease and he is declared “pure,” allowing him to return to the camp. Why pure? Now the violator of evil speech must face the ridicule of being known by all as a chronic gossiper and slanderer. He can no longer hide from that reputation.

Other commentators, such as the Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) claim that the chance of the tzara’at disease appearing in the walls of a house is very slight. He notes that tzara’at only appears in homes located in the land of Israel–the Jewish homeland. This is because the land is so sanctified that any sign of moral and spiritual impropriety will result in a plague.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) cites the Midrash that states that when the Canaanites heard that the children of Israel were approaching the land to capture it, they quickly hid their treasures of gold in the walls of their homes. G-d therefore afflicted these homes with tzara’at, so that the Israelites might destroy the houses and discover the valuable treasures. Other commentaries reject this theory out of hand.

Whatever the Divine purpose of afflicting a home with the plague of tzara’at, the message of the plague resounds clearly.

The well-known aphorism, “walls have ears” may have much to teach us in this instance. When reading the description of the biblical affliction of tzara’at one might conclude (incorrectly, we must add) that we’re referring to something similar to mildew. Home dwellers who have experienced mildew in their dwellings know what havoc it may wreak. It has now been confirmed that many serious medical disorders result from exposure to severe mildew–including stomach problems, inability to concentrate, skeletal pain, and even incontinence. Mildew is something you can’t see, you can’t smell, you can’t touch, but it’s there, and it is very difficult to remove once it infects a location.

Similarly, after many years of scientific research it has been conclusively confirmed that secondhand cigarette smoke has a deleterious impact on all the residents in the smoker’s home. Children who live in homes of heavy smokers may contract asthma or develop lesions on their lungs, or, G-d forbid, even cancer.

Our rabbis often speak of the sanctity of the home. The Talmud praises women who were so righteous that the walls of their homes never saw an immodest act or behavior. They tell of the family that was so diligent in guarding their speech that no evil or improper word was ever heard within the portals of their home.

To those of us who struggle to live proper lives in an ever-challenging contemporary environment, the message is resoundingly clear: A home is not merely a home, it is a “sanctuary,” as sacred as the Temple in Jerusalem! A home should not only be a dwelling place for family members, but a dwelling place for the Divine presence as well. As important as it is to keep the furniture in the home dusted and the walls properly plastered and painted, it is equally important to keep the tone of the house pure, and the conversation of the house proper. As important as it is to have attractive and functional furnishings in a home, it is equally important to have attractive and functional values and behavior. As important as it is to have nutritious and appetizing meals, it is equally important to have nutritious and appetizing role models to insure that the moral, ethical and spiritual diet of the children is properly balanced and administered with diligent care and supervision. While a home may be considered “one man’s castle,” the values of that castle are what provide the real security. Yes, the values, not the walls, provide the real security!

May you be blessed.