It never ceases to amaze me how deeply passions run about Israel. And I don’t mean just among members of this congregation. I don’t even mean among Jews alone. It’s amazing how the whole world seems always so impassioned, so hyper vigilant, so ready to scream and yell and battle over the fate of Israel, the Jewish State. Why is that? Why is the media so focused on it? Why do so many people, everywhere it seems, have such definite, absolute opinions about who is right and who is wrong in Israel? Why is the whole world so quick to polarize over this place? At times, it really seems as if there’s something supernatural going on, something particularly energizing about the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. And maybe this really is so. If you read the Torah, there’s no doubt about the particular spiritual power of the Land of Israel. It really is a unique focal point of the world. According to our ancient tradition, things happen in that particular place that don’t quite happen in that way anywhere else.
Case in point is the subject of this week’s Torah-reading: the Metzora, the ones afflicted with Tzara’at, that strange affliction that not only causes a white, scaly outbreak on the skin, but also on one’s clothes, and even in the walls of one’s house. And particularly, it seems, the houses of the Land of Israel are uniquely susceptible to contract this disease. Remember, last week we learned what this disease is really about: it’s obviously not just an illness. It’s a spiritual affliction that is the physical manifestation of a spiritual degradation. Tzara’at is the result of spreading Lashon Hara, evil speech, hateful, twisted, and corrupt ideas that can corrode the human spirit, and undo the very fabric of decent society. Engage in calumny, gossip, slander, hate speech, and you will be zapped in the Land of Israel with this disease. Speak unkind and careless speech within your family, and the very walls of your home will begin to rot away with this Divinely-sent affliction. A home afflicted is obviously a very powerful metaphor for the destructive nature of hateful speech: the house, the home, the safe-place—even this can be fodder for the spreading of the worst and lowest behaviors of humanity. So take care, Israelites, even in the privacy of your homes, and never spread hate or evil, no matter where you are!
But this idea of a house afflicted has even deeper implications about the moral power of the Land of Israel, implications that have resonance even into our own times: the Torah says, “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you la’achuzah, as a possession, and I inflict tzara’at, an eruptive plague ‘b’veit eretz achuzatchem,’ in your house in the land you possess…” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, brings in an interesting Midrashic interpretation of this verse. He explains that the Israelites, when they came into the Land of Cana’an, actually inhabited the houses that had belonged to the ‘Amorites, the pagans who had been on the land before. He explains that the ‘Amorites concealed treasures of gold within the walls of their houses during the Israelites’ 40-year wanderings, because they knew that the Israelites would eventually come, dispossess them, and chase them from their homes. So they hid them. Why did they do this? Because they knew what God had told Abraham all those years before: that one day his offspring would come and inherit the Land. They knew that once their own sinfulness reached the critical breaking point, then the Israelites would arrive and they would be expelled from the Land. So they hid their gold in the walls knowing their time of expulsion was near, but they were ever-hopeful that eventually, even the Israelites’ sinfulness would result in their—the Israelitess’-- expulsion—at which time the ‘Amorites could return to their old houses, and get their gold back from inside the walls. But, with the hindsight of history, we know that the ‘Amorites never did return to the land, because their pagan sinfulness was so great, they were completely wiped out.
But it was good news for us! Even when our walls were afflicted, we had to rip down those walls, and lo and behold, we, the Israelites, discovered gold in those walls for us!
Embedded in this story, like the gold embedded in the walls, is the notion that the Land of Israel is not like other places. It has a moral reckoning for its inhabitants: if your immorality and sin become too great—the land will vomit you out…Our sages even see this warning embedded in the Hebrew of our Torah reading: there’s a funny repetition of the Hebrew word ‘achuzah,’ which means ‘possession.’ It says ‘When you come into the Land that I [God] give you la’achuzah, as a possession’…and then it talks about tzara’at in your house in ‘eretz achuzatchem’ in the Land of your possession. Why use the same word twice in the same sentence? Because, our sages explain, God wants us to know that we possess this land not by our own power, but because God gave it to us. And furthermore, if we start to claim absolute possession and ownership over the land, as if it’s ‘achuzatchem,’ as if it’s our possession—that’s when our very houses will start to rot with disease! It’s as if our tradition wants us to remember that “our” very land, “our” very houses on that land, they didn’t originally belong to us at all. It’s only when we humbly recognize this, then we can find the gold in the walls…
But wait a minute. There’s a disturbing paradox in this teaching, isn’t there? It’s only when we Israelites are arrogantly spreading evil speech that our houses get afflicted with this disease, and then, when we rip down the rotting walls—we’re getting rewarded for our arrogant speech with gold! Is that fair? Is that right? Why would God allow us to be rewarded for our evil speech in the land?
The answer comes when we consider the nature of our so-called ‘reward’ of gold. That gold in the walls, it was once the priceless treasures of those poor old ‘Amorites, now long gone from the Land. It represents their hopes and dreams of their future return to their homes. And now we get their gold. We even get their houses. It’s a reward, indeed. But put yourself in the place of that humbled Israelite, afflicted with a Divine punishment for their own arrogant words; now finding gold from someone else expelled by God from my own house for their arrogant sinfulness, now lost to this land and to history. As shiny and valuable as that gold may be, it doesn’t feel like much of a reward, does it. If you’re anything like me, that gold, even that house, feels kind of sickening. It feels tragic. And it leaves us in a tail-spin.
And this, I believe, is the very point of this teaching. Like so many of the wisest teachings of our Jewish tradition, it’s there to disturb us, to discomfit us, to bring about a dark uneasiness deep within our souls about our moral standing in the Land of Israel, and in the world: We Jewish people, look at our place in the Land of Israel. Look at our homeland, the very homes we live in. It is such a blessing. It is such a miracle. It is such a gift of God. Indeed, the Land is ours to possess! But take care and remember: this Land was once the possessions of others. Remember your own arrogance on that Land. Remember that as soon as you make an idol of the land itself, of your house itself, you literally bring down that house, you bring down the holiness of the Land, and you endanger your very place on the Land. Let the rotting disease on the walls, and the shining gold within stand as an eternal reminder of this truth.
No wonder there are such eternal passions surrounding the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. It’s a land that bears scars of loss, of moral struggle, and of our highest yearning for redemption. Isn’t it amazing how the deepest struggles in the modern state of Israel directly reflect some of our most ancient struggles about the land: different peoples claiming the land as their own; the Jewish people with our sense of our holy and God-given connection to the Land; the collective guilts and angers surrounding accusations of one people dispossessing another people. These themes and messages are not just current events. These themes have been defining the moral struggles of the Land literally since time immemorial.
We all yearn for a solution, once and for all, for the problems and challenges that beset our people in the Land of Israel. This is why our passions flare so fiercely. But our tradition wants us to understand that the Land of Israel, like it’s very name, Yisrael, mean’s ‘struggle.’ Struggle with God. Struggle for truth. Struggle for what is right and good in a place that is inherently and deeply complex. Embedded in the land is indeed the purest and most precious of gold—the gold of spirit, of insight, of Torah, of moral excellence. But that gold always comes with a price. It always bares the scars of those who have failed to live up to its worth. This is what it means to live in the Land of Israel—not to be free of struggle, but to lift that struggle up, and see it as a struggle toward goodness, toward holiness, toward humility, compassion and justice. So long as we look upon the walls of our homes in the Land of Israel, and see in the very walls a message that humbles us, that drives us not toward polarized hatreds but toward wisdom and justice, then the struggle of our Land, the struggle of centuries, is truly worth it.