The Punishment of the Emorites is the Reward of Israel
This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest. (Leviticus 14:2) So begins a detailed description of the rituals involved with purifying someone who has been afflicted with Biblical Leprosy.
The original Hebrew word used in the Bible for this leprosy is “Zaraat,” which is commonly translated as leprosy. As all modern individuals are aware, however, leprosy is a medical affliction which, since the invention of antibiotics, is fully treatable medically. In referring to “Zaraat”, the Bible discusses a purely spiritual cleansing, performed by the priest. It is clear, therefore, that the word leprosy is actually a mistranslation of the word “Zaraat” and that the disease referred to in the Bible, although similar in its physical manifestations to leprosy or some other skin disease, is actually a spiritual ailment requiring a purely spiritual cure.
Although the Bible does not mention in these chapters in Leviticus what the cause of such an affliction would be, we do have a hint of the cause in a later chapter. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite he had married… And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them… behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow” (Numbers 12:1-10). Miriam was stricken by God with this same skin disease, clearly as a punishment for having spoken ill of her brother Moses.
God does not treat gossip lightly. As men and women created in His image, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves and to treat everyone with respect. This includes not maligning them, even in a light, gossipy way. Our sages have said that if one shames another person in public it as if he has murdered him. The import of this statement is that a person’s honor, reputation and dignity are often as important to him as his physical life. When you damage a person’s reputation, you are destroying an important part of his humanity. Similarly, when we gossip about people, we tarnish their reputation and cast a shadow upon their motivations or actions. When Miriam criticized Moses’ relationship with his wife, she did just that and she was severely punished.
The issue of Zaraat is treated at length in the midrash and other commentaries of our sages. One of these commentaries lists seven sins which result in Zaraat. The first one is gossip and slander, as explained above. They all represent sins that affect societal norms and the impurity which forces the inflicted person to leave his community until he is purified represents a societal ban against him because of his anti-social behavior.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Zaraat infliction is when it affects a home rather than a person. Scripture tells us: “When you enter the Land of Canaan that I give you as a possession and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (Leviticus 14:34). In addition to the curious aspect of a house affliction, the language in this section is unique. The infliction on the house takes place only in the Land of Israel and it is a direct infliction by God. The verse reads “I inflict” in contrast to previous wordings ‘a person has on the skin of his body.” The infliction here is so much more personal and so much more direct.
The midrash brings a fascinating interpretation to these verses. It notes that in most cases when Scripture introduces a subject regarding entering the land, it is a festive declaration coming to inspire or encourage. In this case, however, the infliction of Zaraat is hardly inspiring or encouraging.
The midrash explains: “When the Emorites heard that the Israelites are about to enter the land, they hid their valuables in the walls of their houses. God said to His people: I promised your forefathers that I would bring their children to a land of plenty. What did God do? He struck the house with afflictions the Israelite owner took apart the house and found the treasure.“
This midrash turns the punishment of house afflictions into a reward for the Israelites who are entering the Land of Israel for the first time. And it reflects the spiritual reality that accompanies the entrance of the people to the Land. God promises Abraham, that his children will inherit the land only after the sin of the Emorite comes due (Genesis 15:16). And this midrash, in its typically concise but figurative way, shows how God is personally involved in judging the actions of the Emorites and through the affliction to their houses, representing their punishment, brings reward and bounty to the Nation of Israel.
Shabbat Shalom from Samaria,
Director, Israel Office