By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“When you enter the land of Cana’an that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague (tzara’at) upon a house in the land you possess (Vayikra 14:34).
Mitzvah of the Land
At first glance, tzara’at, spiritual leprosy, doesn’t seem linked with the mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel, but rather to the laws of purity and perhaps medicine. Yet about the strangest form of tzara’at that affects the inanimate stones of the home, the Torah states explicitly that it affects “a house in the land you possess;” that is, this mitzvah relates only to the Land of Israel. Moreover, for tzara’at of the home, selling the home to a gentile can solve the problem according to all halachic opinions, since “the homes of gentiles in the Land of Israel are not contaminated by afflictions [nega’im]” (Rambam, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 14:11). This mitzvah is tied to the bond between the Jews and their soil.
Why does tzara’at apply in the Land of Israel alone? We can assume this is because the mitzvah applies to the home, and all areas of purity and impurity are linked to sanctity inherent in an object or person. Physical homes outside the Land of Israel are devoid of the sanctity of the Land of Israel, so such matters would not apply. However, there is perhaps a deeper message here, linked to the unique status of the Land of Israel as the place under G-d’s constant observation.
Tzara’at of The Home: Punishment, Not A Prize
Many of us are familiar with the Midrash (also mentioned in Rashi’s commentary, ad loc.) from which we might understand that tzara’at of the home was actually a good thing, since tearing down the walls of the house revealed treasure hidden by the former Canaanite residents. However, tzara’at of the home is first and foremost a type of punishment. Even if there is some compensation that comes along with it, it is relatively marginal to the actual issue at hand. In other places in Talmudic literature, Chazal teach us that tzara’at of the home is a punishment for certain sins: for those refusing to lend objects in their homes (Yoma 11b), theft, and miserliness (Arachin 16a). Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at, views tzara’at of the home as the first step in a chain of gradually intensifying punishments for speaking slander. We see here that we need to find another basic, fundamental message that can explain the punishment.
To explain the matter of tzara’at of the home, we will first consider the climate. The great empires to the south (Egypt) and north (Mesopotamia, Acadia, Assyria, and Babylon) of the Land of Israel do not generally suffer water shortages; they sit along large rivers that account for their regular water supply. Even most of the other countries closer to us, besides the small rivers they have, also enjoy relatively regular precipitation. In contrast, the situation in the Land of Israel is completely different. Here, the land “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven” (Devarim 11:11) We don’t have any large rivers and our rainfall is not at all regular.
The Land of Israel receives its rainfall mainly due to the barometric low pressure system called the Cyprus lows, duly named since it originates from over Cyprus. From there it moves eastward to the Mediterranean Sea, where it anchors. At this point, it has two options: it can either advance towards the center, in which case the Land of Israel will have rain, or it can move northward, in which case Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey will have rain while Israel will remain thirsty for water. This is why this system is also called “the elusive lows.”
When the Torah wants to inform us of the Land of Israel’s virtues, it is that it is a Land constantly under G-d’s observation. This quality is in stark contrast to where they just left: “For the land that you are about to enter … is not like the land of Egypt … the grain you sowed would be watered by your feet, like a vegetable garden” (Devarim 11:10). In Egypt, water is plentiful — all you need to do is draw a trench (ye’or) in the soil with your foot and divert the water to the field. In the Land of Israel, though, fields are watered only by rain, which, as we mentioned, does not always fall.
The verses above describe the dry facts about the precarious situation in the Land of Israel in comparison to the land from which they left. However, behind this description is a deep message of faith, presented by the Torah in the next verse (11:12): “It is a land which the L-rd your G-d looks after, on which the L-rd your G-d always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” The Land of Israel is under G-d’s constant observation. How is this manifested? If the residents of the Land of Israel misbehave, with one Divine “foo,” as it were, G-d moves the Cyprus lows northward, leaving the Land of Israel high and dry.
Let’s be clear: this situation is a huge Divine kindness, since it compels us to constantly be connected to G-d. And with the slightest stumble, we receive a hint from Above.
Tzara’at: The Punishment That Is Also a Kindness
The same is true with tzara’at. G-d wants to signal to us when we are misbehaving. The first step is tzara’at of the home. If the Jew doesn’t get the message, then the Divine hints become closer to the individual: tzara’at of garments. Only then, if he continues to close his eyes tightly, there is no recourse other than to afflict the person himself. He must leave his negative environment, go into solitude, and think deeply about his ways (based on the Rambam, ibid.).
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. The Institute opened an English department to cater to the English-speaking public living in Israel and abroad. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.