By Simon Rosenbach
So, we had 48 hours of rain some years ago and our sump pump failed. Well, we had tons of stuff in the basement, although nothing really good, and we were leaving for Florida in four days, and we naturally went into a panic. How will we ever clean up? How will we save stuff? And, most of all, how will we avoid mold?
We’ve all heard the stories. Killer mold. It grows two feet thick behind the walls of the house. Million-dollar houses in Texas that have to be razed. Oh, man, what are we going to do?
Well, we called some outfit, and a representative came, and surveyed the damage, and said, clean up, let it dry, I’ll wash the rug for you, and don’t worry about it. I’ve been doing this for 39 years, and you will not have a mold problem.
Now, if this had happened 2900 years ago, we’d have called a priest, not a clean-up guy, because the priest was the clean-up guy. One half of this week’s combined parashah, M’tzora, specifically addresses the problem of mold, or something like mold, appearing in the walls of a house. If something like an affliction, which is red or green streaks in the stones of the interior walls, appeared in a house, the homeowner summoned a priest, who would examine the symptoms. The house would be sealed for a week, and then the priest would examine it again. If the red or green streaks remained the priest would have those stones removed and cast into a place for unclean stones. Then the walls would be repaired. After a while, the priest would return, and if the “affliction” had returned, the house was razed.
The first part of this half of the Torah portion discusses some skin disease, usually referred to as leprosy. The last part of this part of the Torah portion discusses different kinds of bodily emissions, in particular, from sex organs. So why, in between, would this Torah portion tell the Israelites to look out for mold in their houses? To answer this question, we need to examine how the Torah is arranged.
The Torah is a collection of histories, legends, law codes, and ritual codes, but it is not merely thrown together.
Things are in particular places in the Torah for particular reasons, and in this case, the discussion of mold and houses is the fourth of the seven aliyot.
Now, seven is an interesting number. Our ancestors gave it mystical significance, and psychologists tell us that it is the largest number the ordinary human can count simply by seeing it. But seven is a symmetrical number: three up, three down, and one in the middle. Thus, when we read M’tzora alone, we see people on one end, people on the other end, and houses in the middle. What’s so special about houses that they are the pivotal point of this parashah?
Well, “house” is often a metaphor for “person” or “ethnic group.” Put your house in order, we say. “A pox on both your houses,” said Shakespeare. “Nice house, nobody home,” is a line from Nunsense. And some of you may know, and some of you may remember, a great song called “This Old House”:
This ole house is a-gettin’ shaky
This ole house is a-gettin’ old
This ole house lets in the rain
This ole house lets in the cold
Even in Hebrew, we do it: y’varech et beit Yisrael, y’varech et beit Aharon ‘ May God bless the House of Israel, the House of Aaron. So I think that we are really talking about people and cultures, not houses.
What’s interesting is that the directives concerning leprosy were for the here and now: when somebody gets leprosy, here is what you do. The directives concerning the emissions were for the here and now: when somebody has an emission, here is what you do. The directives about the house, however, were in the future: when you come into the land that I have promised you, and your house has an affliction, . . . .
Why is the Torah so worried about a future event? Why the fixation on these moldy houses?
Well, when the Israelites enter Canaan they will be dispersed. There will be territorial allocations, and the people will no longer be close to one another. While they are wandering in the desert, they are in close contact with their leadership. They can easily walk to wherever Moses is and ask him a question. Their proximity to one another will help them to reinforce their values. But when they enter Canaan, life will be different.
The Canaanites don’t eat like us, they don’t drink like us, they don’t pray like us, they don’t worship like us. There will be temptations, and there will not be the mutual reinforcement that we had when we were all together in the camp. If we are not careful, we will stray and join the Canaanites.
That is the mold in the walls. Once we are in the land, we must periodically check ourselves and our People to be sure that we are continuing to live the values that our Torah teaches us. As time passes, it will be easier and easier to abandon those values, but the Torah tells us that if we do, our house will be razed: the children of Israel will simply disappear.
M’tzora tells us, however, that as long as we monitor our location and understand our place in the world, our house will not be razed and we will continue to survive as a people.