Having just come off of some intensive Passover/Spring cleaning, it's amazing to me that my house is a mess again. We have a problem with Cheerios these days, being crunched underfoot after they are flung from the table. In general, it feels like the cleaning, and the clutter, never end.
Which brings me to this week's Torah portions, the double portions of Tazria-Metsora. These portions are about what causes one to move between the status of clean and unclean, or pure and impure. These statuses have to do with ritual purity in terms of being able to enter and offer sacrifices at the Temple, so they do not actually reflect on someone's physical or moral cleanliness. The portion also addresses the priestly role in helping people move from the status of impure to pure again.
And it is not just people who can become impure. This can also happen to cloth or leather, and to houses. In Metsora we learn: "If, when he [the priest] examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house and close up the house for seven days."
Anyone who has dealt with flooding in their basement or mildew from a leaking roof can identify with this situation. The priest keeps checking the house after a waiting period to see if the plague is still there, trying first to replace the stones and wall coatings that are afflicted. If the plague keeps coming back, the whole house is declared unclean and torn down.
This is a similar procedure to the one we learn of in Tazria, only there it is regarding people. A person with a "leprous affection" is examined by the priest and if found unclean waits outside the camp for seven days. The priest then re-examines the person until he or she is ready to re-enter.
The two procedures do not correlate exactly, because a person is continually re-examined until declared clean — there is no permanent "tearing down" as there can be with a house. But the similarity shows us that people are closely identified with their environments. A person can make objects in a house unclean, and a house, just like a person, can become unclean, passing that status onto a person dwelling there.
We are familiar with both these scenarios — the germs we spread around the house when we are sick, and the toxins that are sometimes found in our houses that can make us sick. We live in a symbiotic relationship with our environment — on a small scale in our houses, and on a large scale in the world.
The spaces we live in also affect us mentally. When we enter a clean, spacious environment our minds often reflect that spaciousness and we are able to relax, whereas crowded, cluttered environments can make people tense.
Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Chasidic commentator, understands this symbiotic relationship between person and house on a spiritual level. He surmises that if an unclean person can make a house unclean, the opposite is true. "Israel's holiness is so great that they can also draw sanctity and purity into their dwelling-places … including both plants and ordinary physical objects!"
This is a reminder of what we are all trying to learn these days. Our environment affects us, and we affect our environment. We would do well to carry this ancient consciousness of the Torah into our modern lives.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]