“Something like a plague has appeared in my house” (Lev. 14:35) No, that’s not the cousins who have descended for Passover. It’s not even the general Passover cleaning, though this time of year makes it seem just as intimidating. Rather, this plague shows up in a curious little section of Vayikra in parasha Metzora, when God inflicts an “eruptive plague” on a home, and the owner has to go to the priest for help. Much like when a person has been determined to have a rash or leprosy or other affliction, the priest becomes the doctor—he must diagnose, proscribe, and then declare the infection to be over. The owner of a “sick” house has to haul everything out of the house so the priest can inspect the walls over a week’s time, and if that affliction keeps spreading, the owner must tear the house down.
And you thought cleaning for Passover was a big deal.
This part of the Torah focuses on purity and impurity, but it’s important to understand that impure is just a temporary state of being; it’s not the same as being evil. That is, a person is in a tahor (pure) or tamei (impure) state; there are things you do that will move you from one to the other. People aren’t the only thing that can be tamei or tahor.
Things can be classified as tahor or tamei, also. There are all sorts of kitchen items that can become tamei by coming into contact with tamei things (like a carcass): leather strips, pottery, vessels, cooking things, etc. Kosher-kitchen-keepers certainly get that. Clothes can be tamei or tahor, too; there are instructions about having to wash clothes that have come into contact with impure things
But a house? What would make a whole house tamei? We hear stories about homes and offices that are “sick”; that is, there is something in the very building materials that are making the people inside ill. Those places have some sort of invisible affliction, and at times, the only way to make them habitable again is to tear them down and rebuild. In Torah, the priest, too, begins looking behind the walls for an illness that can’t be seen until it erupts through the walls.
One Talmudic explanation of this passage is that a house is afflicted like this when the owner is stingy, which is why the owner must bring out all the possessions for the priest to diagnose, publically displaying his personal wealth and contradicting claims of poverty. It’s not just the building materials that can infect a house. What happens inside a house can make it a tamei place. No amount of scrubbing can cleanse a home in which bitterness, mean-spiritedness, disrespect, or violence exists.
We spend a lot of energy cleaning every nook and cranny of our homes at this time of year, searching for chametz (leavening). It’s spring cleaning at the highest level, and many people have likened it to a time of “spiritual cleansing.” Chametz is what makes things puff up with air; the difference between matza and Wonder Bread is just air. On a transcendent level, our spiritual selves can be over-inflated, puffed up by our egos. When our egos get too inflated, they erupt and begin seeping into everything we do, and affecting every relationship we have. True too, when a house is filled with the chametz of insensitivity, anger, self-centeredness or indifference, it will also erupt, and the effects will seep out of the very walls of the home. That family life needs to be carefully re-built, piece by piece.
As we search out every piece of last year’s chametz, let’s also be on the lookout for both our own and our family’s spiritual chametz. This way, the walls of our homes and the foundations of our families will be tahor.
Chag Sameach, Happy Passover.
You can read more of Anita Silvert's writing on her blog, Jewish Gems at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com