Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Plague on our Houses

Has your house ever come down with a case of leprosy (or, to be more precise, the leprosy-like disease that Torah calls tzara’at)? This is most unlikely—yet this affliction of houses is a subject of central concern in this week’s portion, Metzorah, from the book of Leviticus.

The text teaches: “If, when the priest examines the plagued house, the plague in the walls is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall. . . close up the house for seven days. . . The house shall be scraped inside all around and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an impure place. Then they shall take other stones and replace the afflicted stones with them, and take other coating and replaster the house.
But if the plague breaks out again, after the house has been scraped and replastered. . . the house shall be torn down entirely.”

While I will concede that the plague described here sounds uncannily like a description of the kitchen in my old fraternity house (“greenish and reddish streaks” growing over the surface of the walls), our Sages suggest that this is a most mysterious phenomenon. Torah explicitly limits it to the land of Israel, and most of the Rabbis confine its occurrence to the distant past. Indeed, many of the Talmudic teachers claim that there was never an actual case of a house afflicted with tzara’at.

Of course this raises an obvious question: if the plague on houses is a purely hypothetical narrative, why does the Torah bother to describe it in such detail? The Sages offer this classic answer: “D’rash v’kabel s’char—So that we may explore and interpret the text, and in doing so, receive reward.”

Along these lines, for me, this episode is a metaphor for two types of change that we must sometimes make in our lives: evolutionary and revolutionary transformations.
Sometimes our problems are cleared up with minor adjustments and slight shifts in course. The situations call for change, but do not fundamentally disrupt the social order. This is the way we address most of our issues, tweeking them (and ourselves) to get back on the proper course.

At other times, however, we need to make fundamental, essential changes, going back to square one and starting over from scratch. On these occasions, it is not enough to replaster the house; we have to tear down the entire flawed structure and build anew. This kind of revolutionary, systemic transformation is profoundly difficult and therefore should be taken on only rarely and with deep consideration. Still, at times it is the only approach that will suffice.

The challenge, of course, is to know which course to pursue at any given time. Sometimes we are too quick to tear essentially sound realities; at other times, we apply superficial solutions to institutions and ways of being that are, in fact, beyond repair. As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for each of these approaches. But knowing which one is right at any given time takes real wisdom.

This week, as Pesach—the season of our liberation—draws near, consider the changes you need to make in your own life. What can be accomplished through relatively minor adjustments? And where do you need to “tear down the house” and begin again from a new foundation?

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