When a priest diagnoses the skin disease tzara-at in a human being, that person is isolated from family, community, and God’s sanctuary, and must live outside the camp or town. (See last week’s post, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.) Tzara-at is also the name of a green or red mark that appears and grows in fabric or leather, requiring the article to be burned.
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”) applies the name tzara-at to an infection (probably mold) in the walls of a house. But how do you remove a house from society?
When the owner of the house sees something that looks like a mark of tzara-at, he must inform a priest.
And he will see the mark, and hey! [if] the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, thin-greens or blood-reds, and appears deep in the wall, the priest shall go out from the bayit to the entrance of the bayit, and he shall close up the bayit for seven days. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:37-38)
bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building; household (consisting of family and servants living together).
Seven days is also how long a priest must quarantine a human tentatively diagnosed with tzara-at before a re-examination.
The priest shall return on the seventh day, and he shall look, and hey! [if] the mark in the walls of the bayit has spread, then the priest shall give an order, and they shall take out the stones that are in the marked part, and throw them away outside the town in a ritually impure place. (Leviticus 14:39-40)
Members of the household must also scrape off and throw away the clay or whitewash1 coating the stones inside the house. Then they can rebuild that section of the wall with new stones and a new coating.
But if the mark returns and spreads in the bayit after taking out the stones and after hiketzot the house and after re-coating, then the priest shall come and look, and hey! [if] the mark has spread in the bayit, it is tzara-at from a hurt in the bayit; it is ritually impure. And he shall demolish the bayit … (Leviticus 14:43-45)
hiketzot (הִקְצוֹת) = scraping? tearing apart? (Probably a defective hifil form of the verb katz, קוץ = tore apart.)
In an earlier post, Metzora: A Diseased Family, I suggested that since the word bayit means a household as well as a house, tzara-at of a house might represent a serious malfunction in the household that lives there. Then if replacing an obviously diseased part of the family’s life does not solve the problem, the household should be disbanded.
Bayit can also mean the household of a king. The prophetic poetry of Habakkuk may include a reference to the tzara-at of an imperial household.
The book of Habakkuk is set in the late 7th century BCE., after the Neo-Babylonian Empire had conquered much of the Ancient Near East, including the northern kingdom of Israel, and made Judah a vassal state. It was written shortly before the Babylonian army marched on Jerusalem in 598 BCE.Part of Habakkuk’s prophecy addresses the king of Babylon:
Since you gutted many nations
All the remaining peoples shall gut you
for the bloodshed of humans and the violence to the land,
The city and all who dwell in it. (Habakkuk 2:8)
Rashi2 wrote that “the violence of the land” means the violence done to the land of Israel, and that the city in the next line is Jerusalem. Habakkuk did live in Judah, so this interpretation fits the prophet’s frame of reference.
Hoy!3 Who is cutting off a cut-off slice,4
[Bringing] evil to his own bayit
To set his nest on high? (Habakkuk 2:9)
The king in Babylon (probably Nabopolassar, regnant 658-605 BCE) is not bringing evil to the stones of the palace building. He is corrupting his household, including his son, general, and successor, Nebuchadnezzar II (regnant 605-562 BCE).
Your plan has shamed your own bayit,
Ketzot many peoples,
And your soul was guilty. (Habakkuk 2:10)
ketzot (קְצוֹת) = feeling disgust; tearing apart. (A form of the verb katz, probably related to hiketzot in Leviticus 14:43 above.)
Rashi wrote that the shameful thing the ruler of Babylon plotted was to “strip and peel” many peoples, as in the treatment of walls in Leviticus 14:43.
For a stone from a wall will cry an alarm,
And a wooden rafter will answer:
Hoy! Who builds a town through bloodshed
And founds a city through injustice? (Habakkuk 2:11-12)
Images in poetry often refer to several things at once. Here the parts of a house cry out when the house is being torn apart, like the house in this week’s Torah portion in which the disease of tzara-at reappeared.
But the countries that the Babylonians have been tearing apart are also crying out. And if the injustice perpetrated by the king of Babylon’s household is the evil brought home to roost in Habakkuk 2:9, as well as the shame and guilt in verse 2:10, then the stone and the rafter respond as if they are the soul and conscience of the royal family crying out in alarm.
In Habakkuk, God promises that eventually the rulers from Babylon will be overturned.
You shall be sated with dishonor rather than glory …
The cup in the right hand of God will come around to you,
And disgrace instead of your glory. (Habakkuk 2:16)
The royal line of kings from Nabolpolasser to Nebuchadnezzar and four kings after him ended in 539 BCE, when Cyrus I expanded his Persian Empire by conquering Babylon. Elsewhere the Hebrew Bible claims that God sent Cyrus to rescue the Jews from Babylonian rule.5 Cyrus ruled his empire with a lighter hand, giving a measure of autonomy to local regions and letting deportees such as the Jews in Babylon return home and rebuild their temples.
Ancient Israelites and classic Torah commentators believed that some diseases are a divine punishment for bad behavior. Today some people still see physical disease as an expression of a psychological issue, though as medical science advances fewer and fewer diseases are classified as psychosomatic. Neither white patches of skin nor mold in the walls is caused by negative thoughts.
But poetry can use the imagery of unnatural patches of skin, and creeping mold in walls, to convey truths about the psyche. Habakkuk transmits God’s message that rulers bent on conquest regardless of the price in terms of the destruction of human lives or the devastation of the land may build their “nest in the heights”, but the evil they do will infect their own household—their own ruling family and its confederates—with a disease of the soul.
Habakkuk adds that eventually God will bring down the Babylonian empire. I would add that those who rule without regard for justice, the suffering of human beings, or the plight of the earth cannot experience real happiness or meaning in life. As we rant against such a ruler and his collaborators our own time, may we also feel pity for those with diseased souls.
- The bible uses the word eifer (אֵפֶר) for the material coating the stones. Usually eifer means dust, ashes, or fine dirt. As a wall coating, it might be clay refined from dirt, or whitewash made with lime from ashes of animal bones.
- Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi ShlomohYitzchaki.
- The biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) means the same as the Yiddish interjection Oy: a combination of “Oh!”, “Woe!”, “Oh no!”, and a deep sigh.
- “Cutting off a slice” is a biblical idiom for enriching oneself by cheating.
- Jeremiah 29:10, Ezra 1:1, Isaiah 45:1-3.