Parshat Metzora continues the subject introduced last week, the affliction called tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy” but clearly not the condition we know today as Hansen’s disease. In fact, it might not be a disease at all. After all, tzara’at affects not only people, but fabrics and houses as well, and nobody calls a kohen (priest) to treat a broken leg or a persistent cough.
The Torah says:
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, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing may become unclean; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house.
In other words, before the kohen came to inspect the house, he told the owner to take everything — furniture, utensils, food, etc. — out of the house. Once the kohen declared the problem to be tzara’at, everything in the house at that time would become tamei (ritually impure) and would have to be purified or, in some cases (e.g., earthenware), destroyed.
We could say that this reflects the talmudic principle that “the Torah has compassion on Israel’s money,” but it’s more than that. The rabbis understand that tzara’at is not a disease caused by bacteria or by mold or mildew, but a spiritual affliction that is a response to sin.
And what sin causes tzara’at in houses? Selfishness. According to “Midrash Vayikra Rabbah”:
A man says to a friend, “Lend me a kav [a dry measure] of wheat,” and the friend replies, “I have none”; or one asks for the loan of a kav of barley, and the other says, “I have none”; or one asks for a kav of dates, and the other says, “I have none”; or a woman says to her friend, “Lend me a sieve, and her friend replies, “I have none”; or she says, “Lend me a sifter,” and the friend replies, “I have none.” What does the Holy One do? He causes tzara’at to affect the friend’s house, and as the household effects are taken out, people seeing them say, “Did not that person say, ‘I have none’? See how much wheat is here, how much barley, how many dates! The house is justly cursed with the curses of want that the owner professed.”
Just as a person who speaks lashon hara (gossip) about others is stricken with tzara’at and isolated from the community until the prescribed purification rituals have been performed, so too a person who refuses to help out a neighbor finds his or her home afflicted with tzara’at so that the community will learn that the person values possessions over people.
Surely people will understand that someone would be reluctant to lend a treasured family heirloom, but refusing to lend utensils that are easily replaced if damaged or extra food is simply mean and selfish. And so our rabbis teach us that those who have no regard for the welfare of the community richly deserve the contempt they have brought upon themselves.