Restricted to our Houses, Appreciating our Homes

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Someone in my Shul growing up loved to say, “I don’t repeat lashon hara… so listen carefully the first time.”  While witty, the quip also reflects our tension between simultaneously feeling uncomfortable gossiping and yet also feeling the insatiable appetite to share when we have something juicy. Our two parshiyos, Tazria and Metzora, describe the consequence and rehabilitative process for someone who could not sufficiently guard their tongue.

Tzara’as, spiritual leprosy, could strike an individual or clothing, and it could also infect a house. Rashi quotes the Midrash: “this was good, because the Emorim who lived there for the forty years while the Jewish people journeyed through the desert hid their gold and silver in the walls of their houses. Now, through this tzara’as affliction and the need to demolish the walls, the Jews would find the treasure that was buried there.” 

Isn’t this a peculiar way to deliver a treasure?  If Hashem wanted to reward the people with wealth, why hide it in the walls only to later be discovered because of a condition the house suffers from?

Rabbi Mordecai Mayer was the rabbi of Sha’arei Shomayim on the Lower East Side for 20 years.  (You may recognize his name because for 18 years, he conducted a twice-a-week program on Jewish topics on the radio station WEVD.)  In 1949 he published a book called “Israel’s Wisdom in Modern Life” in which he offers a fascinating interpretation of this Midrash. 

Some suffer the plague of the skin, being uncomfortable with who they are and the consequences of the choices they make.  Others suffer nigei begadim, the plague of the clothing, consumed by what to wear and with whom to identify. And yet others are afflicted with the plague caused by the “walls of their house,” the relentless pursuit of material possessions.

When our house defines us and we invest disproportionate time, resources, energy, care, and concern into what we have and the effort to keep up with others, we become afflicted by the walls of our house.  Our house introduces a plague into our lives – jealousy, anxiety, stress, conflict, arrogance, competitiveness, and an attachment with what we have, not what we experience and who we are.

Rabbi Mayer writes, “The physical home becomes a “nega,” an affliction, when it becomes an obsession, an ideal into itself that drains a person’s energy, resources and spirit.”  He continues by describing how after suffering tzara’as of the home, we actually find a besura tova, a treasure.  “The ‘treasures’ of life are sometimes found specifically within the ruins of the home, of the physical building that had until now overtaken the owner’s life and denied him contentment and fulfillment.  The laws of tzara’as ha-bayis warn us to focus on what we do in the home rather than how it looks, on the values practiced within it rather than the monetary value of its furnishings.  If we seek the true ‘treasures’ of life, then we must look not to our material assets, but rather deep beyond the superficial ‘walls,’ behind the decorative trimmings and luxuries that are incapable of providing the fulfillment and gratification that we desire.”

The treasure we find is the discovery that what matters most is not in fact the size and impressiveness of our house, but what matters is the home we have built.  What memories have we formed?  What relationships have we created?  What values have we transmitted? 

Consider: the Torah’s account of yetzias mitzrayim repeatedly refers to the concept of “bayis,” the home.  The word bayis appears in the section describing Pesach no fewer than 12 times.  The very name of the festival, Pesach, derives from Hashem passing over the battim, the homes of Bnei Yisroel.  The Torah contrasts Hashem’s striking the Egyptians with His saving the Jewish battim.  Even the pascal lamb is designated as se l’veis avos, se labayis, a lamb for each father’s bayis, a lamb for the entire bayis.  What is a bayis and why does it play such a central role? 

The Tolner Rebbe explains that a bayis is a home, not a house.  What is the difference between a house and a home?  A house is the physical structure within which I live.  It is the bricks, mortar, wood and cement that form that which I dwell within and that protects me from the elements.  The home, by contrast, is not physical at all.  It is comprised of the people with whom I live, from whom I receive emotional and spiritual protection, and on whom I can rely and depend upon with consistency.  The Gemara tells us that Rebbe Yossi never referred to his wife as ishti, my wife, but rather as beisi, my home.  The Chizkuni explains that battim, or bayis, refers to children.  A Jewish home is never a matter of four walls, a roof, and furniture.  Bayis consists of the family within, and the dedication of that family to follow Hashem as the Jews did when they gathered with their families to eat the Pesach sacrifice on that night.

It is therefore, not coincidental that Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim and specifically lived in sukkos, temporary, flimsy, impermanent houses.  By living in such provisional and makeshift houses, the people would learn to identify with their home and not their house.

For the last month and for an undetermined amount of time going forward, we have been constrained to our houses.  Certainly, at this time, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned with how we will continue to afford them and the necessities within them.  Nevertheless, during this crisis we have discovered a treasure by being reminded that ultimately what matters is not our house, its size or décor, but our home, the people, their health and well-being, and the relationships that we cherish.

May we all truly merit a bayis ne’eman, a reliable house and a healthy and enduring home.