After reading the laws of tzara’at in great detail—the supernatural skin ailment that afflicted people in Biblical times—we read, in this week’s portion, about the purification of the afflicted one, the metzora:

And the L‑rd spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’at, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the Kohen. The Kohen shall go outside the camp, and the Kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara’at has healed in the afflicted person... The Kohen shall thus effect atonement for him, and he shall be pure.1

Tzara’at would strike individuals who engaged in lashon hara - evil speech. Evil speech tears apart people and communities and undermines the fabric of society. Thus, the Torah commands that the afflicted person be sent away from the camp, to encourage introspection and repentance. There, he or she would undoubtedly learn to appreciate the value of friendship and a cohesive society and resolve to pursue a path that builds relationships, rather than destroys them. At that point, he or she would be welcomed back to the camp.

But just when we thought we had solved the tzara’at issue by correcting its underlying spiritual cause, we read about another form of the condition which appears, not on the flesh of a person, but on a home in the Land of Israel:

And the L‑rd spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession and the one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the Kohen, saying, “Something like a lesion has appeared to me in the house…”2

What is the meaning and symbolism of the tzara’at that afflicts the home? Why isn't this tzara’at written about together with the tzara’at that afflicts the person and his garments in last week’s Torah portion? And why does the tzara’at of the home apply specifically to the land of Israel?

For a healthy society to function, the most important rule is, per Google’s code of conduct, “Don’t be evil,” or as doctors must promise, “Do no harm.” Anyone who cannot follow this basic principle of human civilization has no place in the camp. This is the lesson taught by the tzara’at which afflicted the person.

And yet, not harming others is not a strong enough foundation upon which to build the Land of Israel. Once the Jews entered Israel and were no longer traveling together in the desert, dependent on each other for everything from protection to livelihood, there was a danger that individuals would “lock themselves in their own homes,” separating themselves completely from the people around them.

Addressing the homeowner whose house was afflicted with tzara’at, the verse uses the term “he to whom the house belongs to him.” The Talmud teaches: “‘to him” implies one who devotes his house to himself exclusively.”3 The Torah warns that if a person views his possessions as something exclusively his own, then although he is not as bad as the person who actively speaks evil, he is still undermining his relationship with the people of Israel, thereby compromising his relationship with his home in the Land of Israel.

They may have learned not to harm others, but they were still susceptible to the “housing crisis” —caring only about their own house, apathetic to what was taking place in the rest of the land.

The Torah believes in private property, and teaches that an individual’s land and possessions belong to him alone. But in order for the people of Israel to fulfill their destiny in the Land of Israel, the Torah teaches, they must do more than merely not harm one another. Each and every Jew must view his possessions, his private property, as a means to live a life of meaning, to transcend the self, and to share with others.

Only then will the individual achieve the true satisfaction and joy of self transcendence and connection to the Divine.

As Maimonides writes:

A person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut. When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor.4

The joy we all strive for comes from using our homes to transcend the self.