Wednesday, September 17, 2014 Elul 22, 5774

Transforming Houses Into Safe, Holy Spaces

April 6, 2011 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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Each of us remembers the houses and the neighborhoods in which we spent our childhoods. We learned where we were welcome to go trick or treating on Halloween, and which families greeted us warmly when, each spring, we walked from door to door taking orders for Girl Scout cookies.

On my street, there was one house we always avoided, crossing the street and lowering our voices when we approached it. To us, the house was dark, foreboding and scary. We were convinced that the owner was a witch, and that her house was haunted.

This week's portion, Metzora, explores the phenomenon of houses that have tza'arat, or are inflicted by a mold or fungus. After detailing the purification ritual for individuals afflicted with tza'arat, which is translated as "scaly affection" or "eruption," the portion continues with a discussion of houses similarly afflicted. Such dwellings are different, troubled.

When the text speaks about eruptive plagues on the walls of dwellings, we may think of houses in which we have lived over the years. We may have encountered mold, deterioration, fungus or termites. We may have been kept awake by unexplained, and deeply disconcerting rumblings or creaking. Or we may have been troubled by a deep sense that we could not name, but was nevertheless palpable and powerful.

If we sense that our homes are "afflicted," we may call an exterminator. Our ancestors summoned a priest, who examined the house to determine the appropriate course of action, beginning with evacuation, and, if the plague had spread, pursuing corrective actions that could lead to the ultimate demolition of the house.

"If, however, the priest comes and sees that the plague has not spread in the house after the house was replastered, the priest shall pronounce the house pure, for the plague has healed."

Connect to Sources of Strength 
We live in a time when scientific analysis can help us determine the source of fungus and mold that afflict our homes. But the gnawing sense that a house cannot serve as a home may be a spiritual issue. Many of us have entered homes -- our own or the homes of neighbors or friends -- and have known that something is not right.

We have entered an unsafe place where the walls vibrate with discomfort or even outrage. The house itself is not afflicted. It is we, who inhabit our houses, who are struggling with afflictions, named and unnamed. We may have forgotten that home is where we can and must connect to our sources of strength.

The Torah reminds us of our responsibility to ensure that our homes not only provide refuge and safety from the elements, but that they also are sanctuaries where we live values of respect, and care for ourselves and for others.

Instead of dismissing these chapters of Leviticus as archaic and irrelevant, Metzora invites us to think about the sanctity of our bodies, and the sanctity of our homes. We mark our doorposts with mezuzot to remind us that the words that we speak and the actions we take within those walls have lasting consequences.

May Metzora guide us to reconsider the role that we play in creating, maintaining and insuring holiness of our selves and our dwellings.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@urg.org.

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