Land, Language, and Leprosy

Metzora Tazria By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 10, 2013 / 5773

The second of this week’s parashiyot, Metzora, is an enigma on so many levels. The Torah reading is obsessed with leprous afflictions on one’s skin, clothing, and home. While each of these afflictions is deeply troubling, it is the plague of the home that speaks most vividly to chaos. Torah teaches, “When you come into the Land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put a plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession, then the one that owns the house will come and inform the priest . . . The priest will then command that they clear out the house” (Lev. 14:34–35). Chaos ensues as the house is quarantined for seven days. The family, which considered their domicile their refuge, must now evacuate. How are we to understand the enigma of this plague and its consequences?

Rashi, in his commentary at the beginning of Parashat Metzora, writes that leprosy strikes as a result of the moral shortcoming of lashon ha-ra (gossip). In addition, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the plague of domestic leprosy “applies only to houses in the Land of Israel. Moreover, it takes effect only after the Land has been completely divided up into individual holdings so that every home had its own permanent inhabitant” (Commentary on Leviticus, 386).

Rashi and Hirsch’s insights are compelling. First of all, the centrality of the Land of Israel is at the heart of Hirsch’s exegesis. There is something special, wholly unique, and sensitive about living in the Land of Israel. Second, there needs to be a sense of rootedness and permanence in one’s domicile. The plague of domestic leprosy does not strike a home in which the residents are sojourners. In this sense, Hirsch underscores the extent to which people influence their surroundings. While today, we rightfully wrestle with the notion of connecting a domestic leprous outbreak with moral shortcomings (as Rashi suggests), the allusion is instructive. We have the ability to diminish or enrich our surroundings—whether they be our literal homes, countries, or the world. More than that, when we return to our permanent home (whether it be our private homes, synagogues, or the Land of Israel), we have greater responsibility to those around us. Home demands that we act with a greater sense of ethics, morals, and responsibility. As we conclude this week in which we have commemorated Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Memorial Day, let us never take the concept of home for granted; and may we always care deeply for those within our homes and beyond.

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