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Metzora 5782: Trash and Treasure

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! My wife and I recently bought a house that had been owned by an elderly couple who were, at their very essence, hoarders. The ENTIRE home was filled with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of objects – there wasn’t an empty surface anywhere – and most of the piles had many, many layers of objects piled one on top of the other.

It seems to me that the only thing they hadn’t managed to accumulate was common sense. They had bought the house about seven years prior and had originally intended to sell their old home and move into this one. Unfortunately, the only thing that got moved in was a whole bunch of junk.

I reflected on the conundrum their relatives must face regarding gift giving. On the one hand, anything they receive only makes the problem worse (and they probably already have three different versions of it); on the other hand, you’re pretty much guaranteed that anything you give will be cherished.

There's an old joke about the man who was unceremoniously “dumped” by his hoarder girlfriend. He lamented, “The only thing she ever managed to get rid of was me.”

In this week’s Torah portion we find a reference to a different kind of hoarding.

We find in the Midrash (Torat Cohanim 14:75) that while the Jewish people were wandering in the desert for forty years, the Amorites, who at that time were the inhabitants of the land of Israel, were hoarding their treasures and hiding them in the walls of their homes.

The Amorites knew that the Jewish nation was focused on returning to their ancestral home and evicting any nation who refused to live under Jewish sovereignty. Thinking that they would eventually return to their homes, they hid their wealth within their walls.

This reminds me of the story about the head mafioso who was doing a routine inspection of the books and noticed that there was a million dollars missing. He called a meeting with his deaf accountant and a sign language translator. “Ok, there’s a million dollars missing, where is it?” The translator turned to the accountant and signed, “There’s a million dollars missing and the boss wants to know where it is.”

The accounted signed, “What? I have no idea what he’s talking about.” The translator verbalized, “Boss, he says he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” The mafioso responded, “I’m gonna ask one more time. Where is the money?”

The translator signed, “He’s asking one more time, where’s the money?” The accountant reiterated, “Seriously, I don’t know what he’s talking about!” The translator said, “He says he seriously doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”

The boss was infuriated. He slammed his fist down on the table and pointed a gun to the accountant’s head. He screamed, “TELL THIS IDIOT THAT I WILL BLOW HIS BRAINS ALL OVER THIS DESK IF HE DOESN’T TELL ME WHERE THE MONEY IS RIGHT NOW!”

The translator signed, “Ok, look – he’s dead serious. You better tell him where the money is or he’s going to kill you right here.” The accountant finally responded, “OK! OK! I’ll tell you! I buried it in my backyard under the new deck I just built!”

The mafia boss looked at the translator and asked, “Well, what did he say?!” The translator replied, “He said he doesn’t believe you have the guts to do anything to him!”

This week’s Torah reading continues the theme that began in last week’s Torah portion regarding the punishment for the sin of loshon hora – gossip. Loshon hora, according to the Talmud, is equated with the three most severe sins: 1) murder 2) idol worship 3) sexual immorality (Arachin 15a). The divine retribution for the sin of gossip came in the form of the affliction called tzora’as.

“God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I will give you as a possession, and I will place an affliction of tzora’as upon the house […]” (14:33-34).

What exactly is this “affliction of tzora’as”? The punishment appears as a series of white discolorations or blotches. Because of its similarity in symptoms, tzora’as has been commonly mistranslated as leprosy. The leprosy mentioned in the Torah is not Hansen’s disease caused by the bacterium mycobacterium leprae. Rather, it is a heaven sent physical symptom representative of a spiritual defect.

Our sages teach us that this affliction came in progressive waves: tzora’as first appeared as splotches on one’s home, then, if the person continued to ignore the message, it would appear on the person’s vessels, and finally it would appear on the one’s skin.

Although tzora’as was really intended as a punishment, the great Biblical commentator Rashi observes that this was actually good news for the homeowner. Because, as we mentioned, the Amorites hid treasures and wealth in the walls of their homes during the forty years that Bnei Yisroel were in the desert. “As a result of the tzora’as (in the process of the purification) a person would dismantle the home and find it (these treasure hoards)” (Rashi on Vayikra 14:34).

One must wonder about the logic behind this particular punishment. The divine retribution for a heinous sin actually leads to a person finding a treasure of gold and silver? What message is God trying to convey?

Punishment is a message of criticism from the Almighty that one is not behaving properly and that one must change his ways. But criticism is very difficult for a person to accept. The knee jerk reaction upon hearing criticism from someone is to feel personally attacked and get defensive.

Proper criticism can only be delivered if there is a genuine concern for the person being criticized. In this way, the person feels that he is not being personally attacked, but rather that someone is trying to help him. Seen in this light, the criticized can try to dispassionately look at his own behavior and see if corrective measures are in order.

A person who receives tzora’as on his home is getting a very public rebuke from the Almighty. After all, it’s hard to hide having to dismantle one’s home. It’s basically a public advertisement that one has sinned. This is obviously very embarrassing and debilitating to one’s psyche.

The reason that a person who got the first level of rebuke (tzora’as on one’s home) received an almost instantaneous reward was because God was sending him a message: “I love you and care about you. I am rebuking you for your own good, so please change your ways.” In this way, the person was likely to receive the criticism from the Almighty in the most positive manner possible and consider what changes to make in his life in order to correct his errant behavior. Finding the treasure within the home expressed God’s love and concern. This allowed the person to honestly reflect on the message and react in a positive manner to the criticism.

Seeing as Passover is almost upon us, I decided to close this column with an introduction to one of the overriding themes of Passover: the prohibition against consuming foods that are “chometz” – the literal translation being “fermented.” This refers to any food that contains grain (made from wheat, barely, oat, etc.) whereby the leavening process (“fermentation”) begins when water is added to it. Virtually any food that has a grain ingredient is prohibited on Passover unless it has a reliable Kosher for Passover certification.

Beverages that are made from grains are also prohibited (e.g. beer and most alcoholic spirits – sorry) and, because the majority of processed products have some trace elements of grain derivatives, no food or drinks should be brought into the home without proper Kosher for Passover certification.

Passover has an added stringency; Jews aren’t even allowed to own these products during Passover. Herein lies the source for one of the greatest “workarounds” in Judaism: Any product containing chometz is sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. After the holiday, the chometz is purchased back. This is a legally binding sale, both in Jewish law and in civil law.

In general, the practice has been to go to the home of one’s rabbi before Passover and authorize him to sell whatever products and chometz you own. In the twenty-first century, many of these transactions have shifted to e-commerce – meaning you can now conveniently sell your chometz online. If you would like to sell your chometz, please click here.

There is no charge whatsoever for this service (though you can make a small donation if you desire).

Torah Portion of the Week

Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33

The Torah continues with the laws of physical and spiritual purity. The focus of this portion is upon tzora’as, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted one’s home, one’s clothing, and then one's skin – unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah.

This week's portion continues with the purification process for the metzora, the person afflicted with tzora’as and then the home afflicted with tzora’as. The portion ends with the purification process for discharges from the flesh.

Candle Lighting Times

Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.
— Mark Twain

In Loving Memory of

Alisa Flatow
She found favor and goodness in the eyes of the Almighty and all who knew her.

— Rosalyn and Stephen M. Flatow


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