The disease known as leprosy has engendered dread in the hearts of people especially in times gone by – when it was apparently more widespread and exceedingly contagious. In Biblical times the priests (Kohanim) would determine whether a skin discoloration or scab was indeed leprous – and if so the hapless leper would be rendered ritually impure and exiled from society. From the Biblical religious perspective, this tzara’at emanated from a serious moral deficiency, generally identified as slander (the Hebrew metzora – generally translated as leper – may be taken as a contraction of two words, motzi-ra, to speak out evil words).
Even walls of houses could become infected by this ritually impure discoloration; even stranger still, the Bible describes the phenomenon of “leprosy of houses” in almost positive terms: “And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron saying, ‘when you come into the Land of Canaan which I give to you as an inheritance and I shall give you the plague of leprosy in the houses of the land of your inheritance'” (Leviticus 14:34). How are we to understand this Biblical reference to the “Divine gift” of the leprous walls?
Rashi, the most authentic representative of the view of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages, suggests: “It was a happy tiding for them when the plague (of leprosy) came upon (their homes). This is because the Amorite Canaanites had hidden treasures of gold in the walls of their homes during the forty years when Israel was in the desert, and because of the leprous plagues the walls were taken apart and (the treasures) were found” (Rashi, Leviticus 14:34).
Rashi’s commentary may be given a figurative rather than a literal understanding. The walls of a house represent the family which inhabits that house, and every family has its own individual culture and climate, scents and sensitivities, tales and traditions; a house may also represent many generations of families who lived there, the values, faith commitments and lifestyles which animated those families and constituted their continuity. The sounds, smells and songs, the character, culture and commitments which are absorbed – and expressed- by the walls of a house, are indeed a treasure which is worthy of discovery and exploration. The walls of a home impart powerful lessons; hidden in those walls is a significant treasure trove of memories and messages for the present and future generations. Perhaps it is for this reason that the nation of Israel is called the “house” of Israel throughout the Bible.
From this perspective we can now understand the Biblical introduction to “house – leprosy” This hidden power of the walls is a present as well as a plague, a gift as well as a curse. Are the sounds seeping through the crevices, sounds of Torah, Prayer and affection or tale-bearing, porn and anger? The good news inherent in the leprosy of the walls is the potency of family: the very same home environment which can be so injurious can also be exceedingly beneficial; it all depends upon the “culture of the table” which the family creates.
With this understanding, it is instructive to note the specific colorations – or discolorations – that render the walls ritually unclean: “And he (the Kohen -Priest) shall examine the leprous plague penetratingly embedded in the walls of the house, whether they are bright green or bright red.” (Leviticus 14:37). Can it be that green is identified with money and red identified with blood? A home which imparts materialistic goals as the ideal and/or insensitivity to the shedding of blood – remember that our sages compared slander or character assassination to the shedding of blood – is certainly deservant of the badge of impurity!
Finally, Rashi suggested that there was an Amorite – Canaanite treasure that the inhabitants placed in the walls of their homes in Israel when the Israelites dallied in the desert rejecting the different challenge of the conquest of Israel. Might not this interpretation be suggesting that the indigenous seven nations, had a treasure that they impart to the children through the walls of the houses? This treasure is the belief that the connection to the land is cardinal for every nation that claims a homeland and respects its past. The land must be important enough to fight and even die for, since it contains the seed of our eternity.
I am certainly not suggesting terrorism against innocent citizens and nihilistic, Moloch-like suicide bombing, which proves not love of land but rather universal rejection of life and destruction of fundamental humanistic values. Post-Zionism was forgetting the indelible linkage between a nation and its land as an expression of its commitment to eternal ideals and the continuity between its past and future. Tragically we have only learned as a united nation to appreciate the importance of our homeland when the Palestinian suicide attackers threatened to take it away from us by their vicious attacks. But sacred lessons can be learned even from the purveyors of impurity.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.