One-of-a-Kind Punishment by Jesse Dunietz


At the tail end of the numerous laws of Tzaraat specified by Parshiot Tazria and Metzora, the Torah discusses the topic of Tzaraat on a house.  The Torah introduces this topic by saying, “Ki Tavo’u El Eretz Kena’an…Venatati Nega Tzaraat Beveit Eretz Achuzatchem,” “When you come to the Land of Canaan…I will put an affliction of Tzaraat in the house of the Land of your inheritance” (14:34).  Rashi on this Pasuk quotes the famous Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 14:7) that when the owner of a Tzaraat-stricken house would tear down his home, as per the Torah’s instructions, he would find golden treasures.  These riches had been left by the previous Emori inhabitants of the houses, who, fearing Bnei Yisrael’s impending invasion, had hidden their valuables in the walls when Bnei Yisrael were wandering in the Midbar.  Famous though it may be, this is quite a puzzling comment; after all, Chazal in a number of places clearly associate Tzaraat with major sins, particularly Lashon Hara.  What could possibly lead Rashi (and the Midrash he quotes) to believe that Tzaraat on a house signifies something positive?

Many commentators (Mizrachi, Siftei Chachamim, Yefei Einayim, Re’eim, and others) point to the difference between the Torah’s language in this Pasuk and that which it uses to introduce the other types of Tzaraat afflictions.  In our Pasuk, Hashem specifically says “Venatati,” “and I will give,” a word with an active and positive connotation.  In contrast, all the other Pesukim that describe the presence of Tzaraat, such as 13:2, 13:42, and 13:47, simply use “Yihyeh” or “Tihyeh,” “it shall be.”  The Pasuk about houses is thus the only one with the positive undertones.  Some commentators, based on the continuation of the Midrash, also bring support from the parallelism between our Pasuk and a promise Hashem later makes in Devarim (6:10).  There we are told, “When He will bring you to the Land which He swore…to give you, and houses full of all good things….”  Both of these Pesukim start by mentioning entrance into the Land, continue with a reference to Hashem’s commitment to give it to us, and conclude by discussing the houses of the Land.  The fact that “houses full of all good things” in Devarim corresponds to our Pasuk’s reference to Tzaraat implies that the Tzaraat affliction on houses is actually a fulfillment of the promise in Devarim.

This explanation provides a compelling textual basis for the assertion of Rashi and the Midrash that house-Tzaraat is, at least to some extent, a positive experience.  However, this still leaves us with a philosophical conundrum: how could the phenomenon that carries so many negative associations, and which the Torah constantly calls a “Nega,” an affliction, have such a positive aspect to it?  Furthermore, the Gemara states explicitly in several places (Yoma 11 and Arachin 16) that Tzaraat afflicts houses because of the owner’s stinginess, particularly because of denying that one has the means to aid others.  This, according to the Gemara, is why the owner of the house must clear his possessions out of his house – he is being forced to publicly display the true extent of his means, contradicting his stingy claims.  According to these Gemaras, Tzaraat on a house, like the other forms of Tzaraat, is clearly a punishment for inappropriate behavior.  How can we reconcile this with the positive light in which Rashi seems to view this phenomenon?

Rav Y. Eiger suggests that this is a form of punishment through Chesed.  He brings the analogy of a king who has been insulted by a lowly peasant.  Such a king may decide, rather than punishing the peasant harshly, to elevate him to a high position and give him gifts.  Upon comprehending the kindness and greatness of the man whom he so disrespected and degraded, the peasant will become ashamed of the foolishness of his actions.  Similarly, Hashem acts kindly and positively towards the homeowner afflicted with Tzaraat as part of his correction process – He causes the sinner to understand what and Whom he spurned by sinning, thus paving the way for shame, regret, and repentance.  The Tzaraat is a punishment of sorts, but punishment through Chesed.

Rav Eiger’s explanation, though quite clever, still leaves one gaping hole.  Why is it specifically the man who has Tzaraat, and particularly Tzaraat on his house, who is given such treatment?  We do not say, for example, that one who violates Shabbat should be rewarded for such behavior so that he will feel shame and repent!

I would like to suggest (with thanks to my father for his help with this idea) that this model of reward combined with punishment is aptly suited to the particular sin that causes Tzaraat on a house.  As we mentioned before, the Gemara states that such Tzaraat is a result of stinginess and unwillingness to share one’s possessions.  To counteract this attitude, Hashem drives home to the offender the message of wholehearted generosity.  In the midst of forcing this man to clear out and tear down his house, Hashem still showers him with gifts; even while expressing His strong disapproval of the man’s actions, Hashem’s generosity does not cease.  To receive such a gift in the middle of what he knows to be a punishment forces the owner of the house to contemplate the concept of generosity.  If Hashem is willing to grant such gifts to a lowly sinner such as himself, how much more willing should he be to lend and give to his worthy neighbors!  Thus, because of the context in which he is given these “golden treasures” hidden in his walls, it is particularly the sufferer of house-Tzaraat who will be compelled to feel shame about what he did, and hopefully to reshape his mode of generosity and giving to fit the example that Hashem’s gift to him provides.

Finally, Rabbi Chaim Jachter has suggested that we might understand Rashi’s approach to house-Tzaraat in light of a general phenomenon in Rashi’s commentary to the Chumash.  It appears that Rashi hardly ever misses an opportunity to heap praise on the Jewish people.  Even passages in the Chumash that would on the surface appear to be critical of Am Yisrael are often interpreted in a manner that reflects Hashem’s love for His nation.  Perhaps Rashi’s positive spin on house-Tzaraat is one of the many expressions of the manner in which Rashi lifts the spirit and pride of Am Yisrael to empower us to resist the humiliations that many of our critics both past and present relentlessly heap upon us.

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