Life as a message
A person with selfawareness is expected to interpret the phenomenon he faces to determine if it is a warning, a punishment or perhaps a reward
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes the purification process and the return to the community of the person who was stricken with tzara’at, which is interpreted as a punishment for faulty social behavior. In addition, this parasha describes the purification process of other ritually impure people, as well as two other types of tzara’at: on clothes and in homes – stains that appear on clothes or walls which are not mold but some sort of affliction that is also taken to be a punishment for faulty social behavior.
Maimonides notes that afflictions of clothes and homes are not a natural phenomenon, and explains the various forms of tzara’at as an educational process aimed at warning against lashon hara, slander or undesirable speech.
“This change that affects clothes and houses which the Torah described with the general term of ‘tzara’at’... is not a natural occurrence. Instead, it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara, the walls of his house change color .... If he persists in his wickedness... the clothes he wears change color. If he [still] persists in his wickedness... his skin undergoes changes and he develops tzara’at. This causes him to be isolated and for it to be made known that he must remain alone so that he will not be involved in the talk of the wicked, which is folly and lashon hara” (Mishne Torah, Sefer Tahara, Hilchot Tum’at Tzara’at, 16:10).
Afflictions of houses, therefore, are the first stage of a person’s educational process. We should note that the
affliction gradually gets closer to the person himself. First it appears on the walls of the house, then on his clothes, and only then on his skin.
Surprisingly, when we read in the Torah about “afflictions of the house,” we notice an almost celebratory tone indicating that it is a relatively positive phenomenon:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession .... ” (Leviticus 14:33-34).
The sages of the Midrash wondered, “Is this good news, that they are getting these afflictions?”
This question merited a unique answer by Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai:
“Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: Since the Canaanites heard that [the people of] Israel were coming upon them, they got up and they hid their money in their houses and in their fields. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘I promised to their forefathers that I would bring their children into a land full of good,’ as it is said, ‘and houses full of good’ (Deuteronomy 6:11). What did God do? He sent plagues in their houses [of Jews who had settled in Israel], and he [the owner of the house] would break it down and find in it a treasure” (Leviticus Raba, ch. 17).
After we learned about afflictions of houses that come as punishment for people, it appears there is another side to this, perhaps completely opposite. It is a way to lead a person to find a treasure hidden in the walls of his house. It seems, therefore, that this phenomenon has two contrasting aspects: Sometimes it is a warning for a person whose behavior has been faulty and who has been speaking lashon hara about others, and sometimes it is a way to lead a person to wealth. A person with self-awareness is expected to interpret the phenomenon he faces to determine if it is a warning, a punishment, or perhaps a reward.
THERE IS a story of a Jewish wagon driver in Poland whose horse collapsed and died. This meant that he lost his ability to make a living. The naive and simple wagon driver walked into the synagogue, turned to the holy ark and said: “God, you took my horse. I will yet show you…!” Of course, all the people present smiled at these ridiculous words. Among the people present was also Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, the head of the Ohel Torah Yeshiva in Poland. He turned to the congregation and stopped their laughter. “Listen to how this Jew speaks,” he said. “This wagon-driver understands that his horse hasn’t died of a disease or of an accident. The horse died because God took it. That is faith!”
Man has many different experiences in his lifetime. Some are positive, some less so. Some are open to various interpretations, as we saw with the afflictions of the house. What they all have in common is that a person of faith knows that every event, every experience – loss, success, or a challenge – has a message. Man is the recipient who has to interpret the events of his life in the light of faith. ■
‘WHEN A person speaks lashon hara, the walls of his house change color.’