In the Wilderness, the Israelites live in tents, but when they enter the Land of Israel they will build houses to live in. When that happens, Torah says, they may experience a plague of tzara’at on their houses. Tzara’at, as we saw in last week’s parashah (Leviticus chapter 13), encompasses a number of skin afflictions that convey ritually impurity and necessitate quarantine outside the encampment. This includes rashes, swellings, and eruptive discoloration. But a house with tzara’at? Torah’s description sounds like something straight out of a Steven King horror book waiting for Steven Spielberg to make the flick:
When you enter the land of Canaan that I give 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 impure; 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 that 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. On the seventh day the priest shall return. If he sees that the plague has spread on the walls of the house, the priest shall order the stones with the plague in them to be pulled out and cast outside the city into an impure place. The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an impure place. They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house. (Leviticus 14:34–42)
What is going on here? What are the greenish or reddish streaks? We might suppose mildew or mold, but they don’t fit Torah’s description. No one seems to know what this house plague is. In the world of Jewish interpretation, most fall into one of two categories: p’shat and d’rash. P’shat is an interpretation that considers the contextual, or direct, meaning of the text, and D’rash is an interpretation that seeks to explain the metaphorical meaning for our lives. Another useful and similar set of terms are those employed by academic biblical scholars: exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a critical interpretation of a text that seeks to explain the meaning of the text solely in its context, while eisegesis introduces the interpreter’s assumptions, agendas, and biases into the explanation of the text. In the absence of clear p’shat, when we are unable to say much exegetically, interpreters resort to d’rash and eisegesis. Who has ever seen a house contract a skin disease? Given that there is no corollary to experience, commentators have free rein to explain what Torah means to teach us. As a result, we find a wide range of divergent interpretations. In the end, perhaps they say more about those who offer the explanations than they do about the Torah itself.
Let’s begin with Talmud. BT Horayyot 10a tells us this is a good news announcement. R. Chiyya asks: Really? How is this good news? R. Shimon b. Yochai explains that the moment the Canaanites learned that the Israelites were coming, they ran home and hid their gold behind the walls in their homes. When the Israelites came to inhabit their houses, God brought the plague so they would have to tear down the walls, exposing the treasure hidden behind them. R. Shimon b. Yochai’s imagined scene is problematic on many levels, from historical (there is no evidence of a conquest of the Land of Israel as the Bible describes it) to ethical (taking people’s homes). This perspective is echoed by Rashi (11th century, Province) and the anonymous Sefer ha-Chinuch (13th century, Spain), which explains: “God brought tzara’at to a few houses when [the Israelites] conquered the Land for the benefit [of the Jews] so they would destroy those houses and discover the treasure hidden by the Amorites.”
Midrash moves in an entirely different direction, beginning with the rabbinic understanding that tzara’at in people is divine punishment for lashon ha-ra (gossip and tale-bearing). In others words, immoral behavior can be manifest in physical disease. The house plague works similarly. Leviticus Rabbah, taking a queue from the words, “I inflict,” explains that the plague is Divine punishment for sinful behavior; the cure is repentance:
The diseases which infect a person first appear in the house. If he repents, only the infected stones must be pulled out; if not ,the entire house must be destroyed. They also infect his clothes. If he repents, they need to be laundered; if not, they must be burned. Then they afflict his body. If he repents; he will be purified; if not, he must sit alone. (Leviticus Rabbah 17)
Nachmanides follows much the same line, but adds that the plague in question occurs only in the Land of Israel because that is where “God dwells.”:
[The affliction of clothing] is not natural and does not exist in the world, and the same is true of plague in houses. However, when the Israelites are wholly devoted to God, whose spirit will be upon them at all times to keep their bodies, their clothing, and their houses looking well, but when sin and iniquity occur in one of them ugliness will appear in his flesh or his clothing or his house to show him that God has forsaken him... See then, that this does not happen except in the Land, which is God's inheritance: When you enter the Land… which I give you as a possession (Leviticus 14:34) and ...this [plague] will never occur except in the chosen Land where the presence of God dwells.
The “cure” for the house is specified by Torah:
To purify the house, he shall take two birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop. He shall slaughter the one bird over fresh water in an earthen vessel. He shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the crimson stuff, and the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle on the house seven times. Having purified the house with the blood of the bird, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop, and the crimson stuff, he shall set the live bird free outside the city in the open country, Thus he shall make expiation for the house, and it shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:49–53)
Curiously, the cure for tzara’at of the house is virtually identical to the purification of a person, except that while oil and blood from the sacrifice are sprinkled on a person, water and blood are sprinkled on a house. This reinforces the sense that tzara’at that plagues a house derives from immorality just as tzara’at that afflicts one’s person is the physical manifestation of immoral behavior.
Everyone is struggling to explain a phenomenon described by Torah which has no analog in the world we know. The result is a broad range of interpretations—call them d’rash or eisegesis—of this especially recondite text. R. Shimon bar Yochai chose a triumphalist explanation that paints Canaanites negatively and Jews as the deserving conquerers. The Talmud, written in the shadow of the Destruction of the Second Temple and all the devastation the Roman cataclysm entailed, is deeply concerned with Jewish humiliation, loss of power and sovereignty, and the possibility of regaining hegemony in the Land of Israel. R. Shimon bar Yochai’s d’rash gives voice to these negative feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge. Yet, at the same time, there is another stream of thought working its way through Talmud, and found in midrash and later commentaries. Understanding that the Temple would not be rebuilt any time soon, many rabbis and commentators hunkered down for the long haul and fixed their focus on the internal spirit and psyche of the Jew living in the Diaspora and the needs of a community in Exile awaiting the Messiah. They asked: How do we strengthen the moral fiber of the Jewish community and encourage people to live lives of honesty and integrity, in covenant with God? These questions led to a different understanding of the house plague passage, one that exhorted people to grow ethically.
Today, while we are privileged to have a thriving State of Israel and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, our focus is still on moral teaching. Hence Etz Hayim comments: “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.”
Each time we face a text and it says, Darsheini! (“Explain me!”) we have options and therefore responsibility for the meaning we find in the text. History is riddled with painful examples of the horrible interpretations of biblical verses and passages, wrenched out of context to justify the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of black Africans, and child abuse, and to condemn homosexuals.
Certainly we can explore through sacred text our human experiences of disappointment, confusion, anger, frustration, envy, and all the rest, but in the end, will we privilege and affirm our negative emotions, or will we explore the possibilities and promise of ethical growth, love, joy, awe, empathy, responsibility? The house plague of tzara’at was, in the end, purified. The goal of Torah is to work that same magic on us through study and interpretation. Bit by bit, we purify our souls and improve ourselves.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman