Sunday, March 13, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare unto the priest saying: ‘It seems to me as if there were a plague [ka-nega nir’ah li] in the house.’  And the priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean… And the priest shall come again on the seventh day and shall look; And, behold if the plagues is spread in the walls of the house than the priest shall command that they shall remove the stones in which the plague is and cast them into an unclean place outside the city.  (Lev 14:  35-40)

 The context of these verses was the public health function of the priest in ancient Israel.  He was trained in the diagnosis of lesions on people’s skin and plague in the walls of their houses.  If he were convinced that what he observed was a possible contamination, he was empowered to quarantine the affected person or place and, ultimately declare the possible contamination an actual outbreak. People thus diagnosed would be required to withdraw from their regular contacts and to isolate themselves to prevent the spread of the infection.  If signs of the infection appeared in the walls of the house, everything would be removed from that house, and if the diagnosis was confirmed the affected parts of the wall would be broken down, removed and the interior re-plastered.  Our text spells out this procedure.

The boldfaced Hebrew words in the text are problematic. What does the phrase ka-nega [like a plague] mean? Either it was or it was not a plague. The sages teach three lessons in answering this question.


Obviously, a confirmed diagnosis of a contagious infection in the walls of one’s home was calamitous.
It caused great inconvenience and substantial loss.  The sages viewed the disaster as the awful consequence of the homeowner’s transgressions.  Playing on the similarity of the Hebrew words metzora  [infectious disease, usually translated as leprosy] and the phrase motzi shem ra [one who spreads malicious gossip], they commonly rationalized infectious physical disease with the infectious disease of gossip and slander.  After all, Miriam had suffered a leprous outbreak following her slanderous comments about Moses’ treatment of his wife.  However, this was not the only rationalization of the outbreak:

A Barayta teaches:  Plagues are the consequence of tzarut ha-ayin [a begrudging attitude, (literally: a narrowed eye)], for it is written:” And the one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare unto the priest saying: ‘It seems to me as if there were a plague in the house.’   A teacher in the school of Rabbi Yishma’el taught:  When a person insisted on  his exclusive rights [to enjoy whatever was] in his house because he did not wish to lend his household articles to others and declared that he did not have [what they sought to borrow], The Holy One blessed be He makes public his false denial  by compelling him to remove all the contents of his home. (B.T. Arakhin, 16a).

In this homily the sages again base themselves upon a word play.   The word metzora [infectious disease, leprosy] resonates with the phrase tzarut ha-ayin.  The word and the phrase not only have a similar ring, but both contain the Hebrew letters tzadi, vav and resh [tzora], but also end with the letter ayin.

 The point of this homily is that the plague in the home is a consequence of the plague of having a begrudging attitude.   The niggardly individual is ultimately exposed for what he truly is, and gets what he deserves for his self-serving dishonesty. 

According to this interpretation, disaster has a positive ethical and social purpose. It teaches important moral lessons to the community and may succeed in altering unacceptable behavior and ugly character traits.Similarly, an infected home can uncover an infectious character and teach the community a vital moral lesson about generosity and miserliness. In this sense, the outbreak only appeared to be a plague [ka-nega nir’ah]. This is the first lesson.


The midrash on the verse: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I give the plague to your home …” (Lev. 14:34) addresses God’s peculiar choice of words.  Both the inheritance of the land of Israel and plague in the walls of one’s house are called a divine gift.  How can a house plagued with infection possibly be considered a divine gift? 

The procedure for purification involved the destruction of at least part of the walls of the house and substantial costly renovations—hardly gifts from God.  Accordingly, the sages wrote in the Midrash:

It was a good tiding for Israel that plagues would come upon their homes, because the Amorites had hidden treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during all the forty years that Israel was in the wilderness, and because of the plagues, the Israelites broke down their houses and discovered the hidden treasures. (Sifra and Vayikra Rabbah on Lev.14: 34).

Explaining this Midrash, the Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the boldfaced phrase of our text, nir’ah li, [appears to me] is found only once more in the Torah, in the phrase:  The Lord appeared to me [nir’ah li] from afar. He was making the point that what appears at first glance to be calamitous turns out to be a blessing from God in the long run. 

The sages meant to convey an important teaching in this midrash.  As Bradley Artson has written, every disaster is an opportunity waiting to be discovered.  The calamity of the loss of a substantial portion of a part of one’s home might just be the beginning of much better things to come.  Our lives are punctuated by setbacks, disappointments and sadness.  We can either choose to bemoan our misfortune, assume the role of helpless victims of a malevolent fate and surrender to hopelessness and depression, or see the setbacks as opportunities for personal growth and transformation. Substantial financial losses can be experienced as paralyzing calamities, but can also be powerful motivators for achieving fresh success.  The loss of loved ones is always painful, but our bitter experience can make us better people.  The way we cared for them during their illness gave expression to our enormous potential for loving, and revealed to us personal strengths of which we were not previously aware.   Our own experience of pain can make us sensitive to the suffering of others and more empathic in our interpersonal relationships.  Only a person who has known great pain can truly connect with another who is in pain.  The most effective therapists are those whom Carl Jung has called wounded healers. The Israelites discovered hidden jewels in broken walls. We can find hidden jewels of character buried deeply within ourselves. This is the second lesson of our text.


The Talmud instructs us to bless God for the bad things that happen just as we must for tokens of Divine benevolence.  The blessing for calamity is the resigned expression of faith:  Blessed is the true Judge.  The blessing for good things is:  Blessed be the One who is good and does good things.  How is it possible to be grateful for bad things that befall us?  It is precisely because what at first sight seems bad [ka-nega nir’ah li], is really a gift in the   long view of God. 

The following is a rabbinic illustration of this concept: A farmer has toiled an entire year.  He has prepared the soil, planted the seeds, protected the seedlings from frost and insect infestation, removed weeds and done everything to produce a bumper crop. An entire year’s income is dependant on the success of his harvest.  But disaster strikes.  The nearby river overflows and washes his crop away.  The event is catastrophic.  All has been lost.  However, the floodwaters have washed rich river soil onto his field, insuring an even more abundant yield in the following years.  Should he recite the blessing for bad things now or the blessing for the good things that will eventually follow?  The sages require that the loss be acknowledged as a current evil event.  That is the authentically human reaction, but they also remind us that what now seems bad to us is actually good from the point of view of God. This is the implication of the two phrases,  ka-nega nir’ah li and “The Lord appeared to me [nir’ah li] from afar”.

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