Tzara’at, Repression, and Redemption

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

When you come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you as a possession, and I put the plague of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession… (Vayikra 14:34)

In the first three and a half years after the modern State of Israel was born, it absorbed over 685,000 Jewish refugees from around the world, effectively doubling its population. Over 100,000 Jews were placed in homes and villages previously inhabited by Palestinian Arabs prior to the War of Independence, whose original owners, in many cases families going back many generations, were displaced or fled during the war. These Jewish refugees who had traumatically lost homes and communities now found themselves resettled into their homeland, but actually living in houses with someone else’s pictures on the wall, food in the pantry, and clothing in the closet.

The Midrash records Rabbi Hiyya wondering why, in contrast to the depictions of tzara’at appearing on one’s person or clothing, the opening verse of the Torah’s description of tzara’at appearing on a house almost makes it sound like a good thing, or at least a natural result of the process of taking control of the land.

The Midrash’s answer, in fact, is that God did not place the tzara’at on those homes to punish the Israelites, but to reward them.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught: When the Canaanites heard that Israel were coming to their country, they arose and hid their wealth inside their walls… The Holy One said: I did not promise their forefathers that I would bring their descendants into a land laid waste, but rather to a land full of all kinds of goodness…What, then, did the Holy One do? He caused sores to appear on a person’s house, and when they took it apart, they would find the treasure. (Vayikra Rabba, 17:6)

In his “My Promised Land,” Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recalls growing up in 1950s Tel Aviv. (The book, a combination of personal history and political commentary was problematic for, among other things, the marginalization of female and Palestinian voices in the narrative it constructed. As it turned out, this flaw was reflective of what later came to light about Shavit himself and his attitudes and actions towards women who came within in his orbit. I cite Shavit’s description here because his lack of broader perspective actually informs my own point.)

As Shavit remembers it, the overwhelming element that characterized that era was silence. It was understood that nobody would speak about the terrible things they had experienced, and what they had done to survive them. He describes the air being thick with the tension of what was not expressed openly, but nonetheless palpable.

Shavit’s Tel Aviv was growing at a frenetic pace. He suspects, through, that behind the relentless push for progress was, at least in part, a fear of what lay beneath the surface; by constantly moving forward, people would not have the space to think about what had happened – what they had done – before.

Inevitably, though, there were cracks in the armor. He recalls hearing cries at night as traumatized survivors suffered nightmares, and observed those around him suffering the sudden mood swings and depression that we now understand as PTSD. Every home had stories that would not be shared, but remained buried within its walls. And that must have been doubly true for the homes that literally were someone else’s only a short time before.

Another Midrashic interpretation, though, does see tzara’at on a home as a punishment – for the sin of miserliness.

A person says to his neighbor, “Lend me a kav of wheat.”

The neighbor replies: “I have none.”

“Then a kav of barley?”

“I have none.”

A woman says to her neighbor: “Lend me a sifter.”

She replies, “I have none.”

“Lend me a sieve?”

She replies, “I have none.”

What does the Holy One do? He brings a plague on the house, and when one is forced to take out all of their belongings, everyone sees and they say, “Didn’t they say that they had nothing? Look how much wheat he has! How much barley! How many dates there are here!” (Vayikra Rabba, 17:2)

The Kli Yakar reads this interpretation back into the Biblical verse, particularly the words, “which I give to you as a possession,” explaining that the root of miserliness is forgetting that one’s home and possessions are not truly their own, but rather entrusted to them by the grace of God.

In a brilliant twist, Rabbanit Sharon Rimon demonstrates how both interpretations share a common root. The starkest reminder to an ancient Israelite that their house was only theirs by God’s grace would have been finding within its walls the treasures left behind by its previous owners, and then seeing them swept into the street together with their own possessions.

An Israelite living in such a home may not have known, but, perhaps, might have sensed an older presence, with its own history and story. Sometimes it may have just been a disquieting feeling, but sometimes it manifested as tzara’at, literally bursting through the walls and out into the street, refusing to be silenced and shut away. My sense is that it must have been very similar to what Shavit described of his youth.

With all this in mind, we may better appreciate the seder night as a time when past, present, and future come together around the table. By the conclusion of the seder, through the process of re-experiencing both oppression and redemption, by asking probing questions and providing full, narrative answers, we come to more fully understand who we are and how we got here; nothing is stifled, nor hidden behind the walls. Perhaps that is the necessary stance to look confidently towards the future and the ultimate redemption of our story.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein (SBM 2002) is the Rabbi at The Hampton Synagogue.

 

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