Friday, April 11, 2008

Parashat Metzora:Leprosy and Israel

by Daniel Pinner

“Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron saying: When you come to the Land of Canaan, which I give you as a holding, and I will give a tzara’at-affliction in a house of the Land of your holding, then he whose house it is will come and tell the Kohen saying: Something akin to an affliction has appeared to me in the house” (Leviticus 14:33-35).

The Torah began speaking about tzara’at (usually, though inaccurately, rendered as “leprosy”) back in Parashat Tazria (13:1), and this somewhat unappetizing subject will continue until the end of Chapter 14. In the midst of all this – and the equally non-aesthetic subjects that the Torah deals with in somewhat gruesome detail both before and after – the phrase “when you come to the Land of Canaan…” seems out of place.

The Ibn Ezra explains: “The implication of ‘when you come to the Land of Canaan’ is that this applies solely in the Land, because of the great elevatedness of the Land, because there the Holy Temple is in their midst, and [G-d’s] glory is in the midst of the Holy Temple”. Like so much of what the Ibn Ezra writes, this comment is like a flash of lightning: brief, burning in its intensity, and so dazzling in its brilliance as to illuminate an entire landscape.

Clearly, the affliction of tzara’at applies solely within the Land of Israel. So here, we have a simple way of avoiding this most hideous of afflictions: stay outside of Israel. Remain in the desert, remain in Egypt (or America, France, England, or wherever), and you will never have to face this disgusting disfigurement.

This does not seem to be a particularly good marketing ploy for Aliyah: “Come to Israel – and experience bodily disfigurements, pus, sores, and boils! Only in the Holy Land can you undergo the novelty of G-d turning your house, your garments, and your body weird colours if you disobey certain Mitzvot!” I venture to suggest that any advertising executive would strongly advise Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency that this is poor salesmanship. Was this really the best timing for telling the Jews what awaited them in Israel?

I suggest the following explanation: the phrase el eretz K’na’an (“to the land of Canaan”) occurs only twice in the entire Torah – here, and in the verse “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you pass over the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the Land before you, and eliminate all their figured stones, and all their molten images shall you eliminate, and all their idolatrous altars shall you demolish” (Numbers 33:50-52). This, too, seems to be a somewhat discouraging message: after forty years wandering through the desert, the Jews surely wanted to enter the Land of Israel peacefully, to rest at last, to start building for their future. But G-d instructs Moshe to warn them that immediately upon entering their Land, they would have to wage war. Is this really the best message to give? Come home to Israel – and there, instead of living in tranquillity as you do in the desert, with no enemies around you, you will have to fight for your lives and for your homes, you can have the privilege of having friends and family – perhaps yourself! – killed in battle. Is this really the sort of message that is designed to promote Aliyah?

The answer is a resounding Yes! The very words “to the land of Canaan” should evoke in every Jew such a yearning, that all tribulations are not merely insignificant, but a worthwhile price to pay. “G-d gave the Jews three wonderful gifts, but all can be acquired only through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come” (B’rakhot 5a; Exodus Rabbah 1:1; Tanchuma, Sh’mot 1), and undergoing the suffering to earn any of these gifts is not merely a worthwhile price to pay, but an honour to undergo. Basic training may not be everyone’s idea of fun – but it is an honour to have undergone that gruelling mission for the sake of the Land of Israel. The affliction of tzara’at may be unappealing, but better to suffer this affliction in Israel than to be bodily healthy anywhere else. True, you can avoid it completely by remaining in the desert, in exile – but then, neither will you experience the sanctity and glory of the Shekhinah, which can exist solely in the Land of Israel.

Indeed, other midrashim give an added dimension to these three divine gifts: “G-d gave the Jews three wonderful gifts, and the nations of the world lust after them, and all can be acquired only through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro 10; Sifrei, Deuteronomy 32; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 303).

The Land of Israel is such a wonderful gift that every Jew should be willing to live here, even knowing that here he will be punished for his sins in a way that cannot happen anywhere else. Because here, every Jew will also receive rewards that he cannot even conceive of anywhere else; and here, and nowhere else, every Jew can bask in holiness of the Shekhinah.


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