Sermon Parashat Metzora
Finchley Reform Synagogue
The House of our Souls and the Soul of our Houses
“A plague on both your houses!” cried the mortally wounded Mercutio in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Juliet’s fiery cousin, Tybalt Capulet strikes down Mercutio, friend of Romeo Montague. The feuding between the two famous families turned deadly. The love of their progeny is forever tainted by hate.
This week’s parashah speaks explicitly of plagues upon houses—quite literally. Our Torah portion states:
“When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess…” (Lev. 14:34)
Parashat Metzora, like last week’s parashat Tazria, graphically describes various forms of ritual impurity.
The parashah appears obtuse. We no longer live in an ancient agricultural society nor do we practice a Judaism that has a sacrificial cult at its core. (And we can be thankful for that!) Yet our Torah describes an intricate system of impurities and rituals that do not seem compelling to us moderns.
We can find this series of conditions and rituals equally fascinating and challenging. When one is deemed to have tza’arat, a skin condition that is often inadequately translated with ‘leprosy’, a series of cultic actions is undertaken: the sufferer is isolated, cured, and welcomed back into the community through an elaborate Shamanistic purification ritual. The Kohen—priest—uses live birds, hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson. The healed sufferer brings an offering and is pronounced clean.
Even more mysterious is the condition of a ‘leprous house’, ‘tza’arat bebayit’. Ritual impurity, this dark and intangible force, does not only infect people but also their vessels and homes. When a house is deemed leprous, a priest would examine it and implement a ‘treatment’: the house would be cleaned and cleared of its mould-like plague and ritually purified.
As I am not only a student rabbi but also a cultural anthropologist, I find these parts of the Torah of peculiar interest (although I also appreciate the fact that not everyone may share my arcane interest). Of course, a broader question arises: as progressive Jews, how should we interpret these difficult and obtuse aspects of our tradition?
A proposed interpretation could, of course, be scientific: it seems likely that the tza’arat of people is a medical condition and of houses is a toxic fungal infection. Both are treated by quarantine and hygienic measures. Surely, this could be a valid hypothesis. Yet it misses a certain depth and philosophical relevance. We still feel uncomfortable with these strange rituals.
Our discomfort is not unique. The Jewish tradition itself is at odds with these texts. The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash were eager to reinterpret these forms of impurity as moral. This is in itself a unique (and perhaps slightly desperate) approach since other forms of bodily impurity mentioned in the Torah are perceived as morally neutral. Other forms of bodily impurity are seen as the natural yet wondrous workings of our physicality and fertility and not as a commentary on our moral state.
For the Rabbis, the moral causes and consequences of this unique and mysterious skin tza’arat lay in lashon hara, slander. The famous sage Reish Lakish rereads Metzora as ‘motzi shem ra’, the ‘slanderer’. (It is poignant that later in life, Reish Lakish himself is ‘mortally wounded’ by the proverbial daggers of cruel words). This explanation also fits the story of Miriam’s tza’arat in the book of Numbers when she criticises her brother Moses. Interestingly, according to the Talmud (Tractate Erachin 15b-16a) tza’arat is not only the consequence of slander but also of incest, envy, false oaths and arrogance. What could be the unifying element of these moral failings?
What binds these moral failings is their private and homebound nature. We often like to think of the home as a safe and loving place. Yet, so much abuse takes place within the four walls of the home, under the guise of family or marital dynamics. Tza’arat is essentially an external manifestation of internal corruption. When we abuse ourselves or others, through language or action, this pain will burst forth in metaphorical sores. Such actions are often hidden from the scrutiny of the public eye. So the Torah warns us. Be careful. Be very careful of the things you say and do in your own hearts and in your own homes. Ultimately your deeds will bear witness against you.
The home is not only a private shelter. A house and its walls are also the connective tissue between the smallest social unit—the family—and the outside world. An ideal Jewish home, symbolised by the chuppah, has open walls—boundaries that are strong yet permeable, open and welcoming to the world at large. The walls of the house represent this boundary between internal and external, private and public. Small wonder, then, that the walls can become infested with a moral plague.
Mercutio is right. A ‘plague upon our houses’ when our homes illustrate our moral failings. When instead of love and understanding, callousness reigns. The values we teach our children and each other in the home form the basis of how we interact as individuals in society. Will we become arrogant, envious talebearers, consumed from the inside? Or elevate ourselves and our home lives to holiness, friendship and love?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that parashat Metzora is so close to Pesach. Pesach calls upon us to de-clutter our homes, to clean ourselves inside and our and to rid ourselves of the spiritual chametz (leaven) of arrogance. This season invites us to take stock of our homes and family lives at a deeper spiritual and moral level.
May our houses be blessed this Pesach. May we find blessings of love, companionship and moral strength within our homes. May we continue to open our homes to the beauty and wisdom of the world and to the needs of guests and strangers. Let us take good care of the soul of the home so that it may truly be a home for our soul.
Shabbat shalom and chag Pesach sameach!