Metzora: Purity in an Impure World
How can we reach towards holiness in a world so full of loss, slavery and destruction?
I was planning on this being a fun review of house-based Tzarat in the Torah reading of Metzora.
Then terrorism intervened.
Everybody is talking about the attack in Tel Aviv. But they are all saying the same things they’ve said before. I could say the same things I’ve said before. But I’m not sure what it would accomplish. The only thing that is different about this time is the people who were killed or injured. But I don’t yet know their names; or anything about them. So, I’ll just leave you with this brief thought and then we’ll move on.
Our enemies have hated us since the time of Amalek. Like Amalek, they’ve all had their excuses. Like Amalek, they have nursed their hatred for generations. We are obligated to fight, and we will face some losses. But just fighting is not enough. As with that first battle against Amalek, our leaders have to wield the staff of G-d. They have to lift it high. They have to be doing G-d’s work and walking in G-d’s path. Then we can fight and we can be victorious.
Then we can remove our enemies’ ability, or perhaps even their desire, to nurse their hatreds from generation to generation. To eliminate their memory from below the heavens.
On to the fun stuff. Let’s talk about Pesach cleaning. Pesach cleaning is quite different from person to person and from culture to culture. My family just started with the kids’ bedrooms yesterday – that would be Thursday the week before Pesach. We plan on finishing the kitchen on Tuesday, so we can cook for Pesach. One of my siblings started cleaning at Chanukah – really. Now some of it is crazy cleaning, between the people in my family, but others take it further. Some Indian Jews whitewash their entire houses. I know people here in Israel who repaint before every Pesach. Of course, Ethiopians used to break and remake all their dishes every year. There’s a lot of variety and some people can take it really really far.
But when it comes to taking cleaning, spiritual cleaning, to the next level, this Torah reading does it.
First, you empty the house. Then you take out all the affected stones and replace them while scraping all the mortar. If that fails, you disassemble the whole place and build a new one – a new house that is.
Now, I gotta, say, if I came across some deep green and red mold in my house I might be tempted to do all of the above. But the cleaning we’ve described here is pretty insane. Especially since the person isn’t even necessary affected by the disease – I mean, not as the Torah describes it. It isn’t like it goes from the house to the person. So, why are we doing this?
The whole thing starts with an odd verse:
כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה; וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת, בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם.
When you are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for an inheritance, and I will give the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your inheritance;
Why is it weird? Well, Hashem is giving the house leprosy. It isn’t just placing it or sticking it or imposing it or infecting it. He is giving it, like it is a present.
Just as the land is given to the people, Tzarat is given to the houses.
How can this house-destroying disease be a gift to the house? And how is this connected to the land of achuza, of inheritance.
The way I see it, you’ve inherited the land. You’ve just moved into a house you didn’t own. The house could have a spiritual illness – in how it was built, in the intent that went into it, in the activities that were carried out within it.
And even though you don’t know about those activities, about that intent, it can infect you.
My parents did a pretty good Pesach cleaning. It took months sometimes. The house was big and the house was very very dirty. One year, after I’d gone to college, they’ve moved a bookcase to clean behind it and discovered, stuck there, a dead cat. I’m guessing they didn’t know about it before – knowingly avoiding the dead cat behind a bookcase just seems like a bit much. But it couldn’t have been good for them. And when you think about our reactions, our Jewish reactions, to death – washing our hands, separating ourselves from that reality… it wasn’t only a latent physical threat. It was a spiritual threat too.
So, what could infect a house? It could have been dedicated to idol worship. Deaths could have occurred within it and not have been cleansed. The builder could have assembled it and imagined, it being stone – that he was building his own forever. His own holiness, divorced from that of G-d. He could have forgotten his place in the world. Obviously, people can place a lot of their self-worth in a house. Perhaps they think too much of themselves because of the house they have built.
When the stones are replaced and the mortar scraped, the spirituality reality of the house – in parts and superficially – is cleansed. And if the Tza’arat is a grasping Tzarat – a spiritual force that that is not just passive like a benign tumor, but malignant like an aggressive cancer – then the entire house must be taken down and reassembled.
But the goal is never to harm the homeowner. That is why they would report Tzarat in their own homes. No, the goal is to protect them. That’s why they can take their things out of the house. You aren’t trying to bankrupt them.
The very weirdest thing, for me, is that the house undergoes the same final treatment as a person. A bird is slaughtered, another is let free. In the case of a person it can make sense. We are humbled, as the dove represents the offering of the poor. And we stood at the precipice of life and death, but now we can fly free.
But a house, with the exception of the wonderful house in Up, does not fly free.
The house can be humbled. It can be cleansed, but it cannot fly.
It can, however, draw closer to G-d. To the purity of the sky in which there is no death. And by drawing closer to Hashem it can have Kapara – its core protected from the spiritual threats that surround it.
This might all seem irrelevant, but it is far from it. It is more relevant today than ever before.
I used to eat an an Indian restaurant. It had a hechsher, a Kosher certification. It was a wonderful place. It turns out, though, before the food was being served to Jewish customers, that it was being offered to Vishnu. This isn’t exactly Kosher. The food had a spiritually incompatible taint.
Many religious Jewish women wore wigs from India. It turns out the hair had been donated to support Indian gods. It too was Avoda Zarah – the worship of foreign gods.
But the issues are not just so-called ‘religious’ issues. There are deeply moral as well. Buying cotton t-shirts can involve forced Ugyhur labor – part of China’s genocidal program. Phones and electric cars used a great deal of cobalt, often mined with child slavery in the Congo. If slavery doesn’t do it for you, a 1,000-pound electric car battery requires extracting and processing 500,000 pounds of material. Averaged over the battery’s life, each mile of driving requires 5 pounds of material processing.
And so on and so on.
We do our best, but there are countless sins involved in creating anything. We do not live in a world without loss. And because of the complexity in our modern world, we are so often unaware of those costs. The TV show Good Life has a pretty good take on one dreadfully challenging method of morally score our individual lives.
In the later Torah reading of Matot, we purify all the things we acquire from Midian – their devarim – in fire or water. This is where the commandment to dunk our dishes in the Mikvah in order to purify them comes from. Through this, we connect our eating implements with Hashem and divorce them from any foreign values.
But our living spaces have largely fallen by the wayside. And our other implements – the devarim of modern life – have no process of purification. We can’t set our cars on fire prior to driving them. Or dunk our phones in a sink. Or methodically deconstructing and reconstruct our electrical networks. Or our plumbing.
We don’t have any way – not even scraping the mortar of our homes – of purifying our possessions and somehow making them a part of our divine heritage. We have no way of getting past the moral complexity of our integrated world.
Seen this way, can’t you imagine that the Tzarat that affected our homes might actually be a gift – a way of purifying impurity that we cannot see.
In the absence of Tzarat, the best we can do is to be careful in what we acquire – and then to use it in the service of Hashem.
Perhaps it is like uplifting the staff of G-d in the fight against Amalek. We will fight, we will face spiritual losses. But if we are dedicated to Hashem, if we draw closer to Hashem, then we can be spiritually protected – despite our human limitations.
Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash