Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
Last week, the Torah went to great lengths to explain in vivid detail all of the possible blistering skin diseases that befall the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert. Fortunately, many readers have interpreted these passages as metaphors for holiness and purity rather than a literal handbook of dermatological distress.
Much of this week’s portion covers a lot of the same icky territory. Yet, rather than starting from scratch, let it suffice to say that many of its passages would fit right in as part of a middle school’s health class. For either gender.
But there is a passage that stands out — mostly because it doesn’t concern things that happen to one’s body. Instead, this section is all about nightmare homeowner scenarios. Just like last week’s Parshat Tazria, we’re challenged to find a deeper meaning.
This passage describes the Israelites moving into a house and discovering that their home is erupting with a plague that the Torah describes as greenish or reddish streaks that emanate right from the walls. But this slime-ridden house doesn’t just ooze some green glop all at once and then implode. Instead, the residents would notice that one or two bricks of the house were affected.
God then instructed the people to call upon the kohen, one of the Israelite priests, who was the authority over all religious and spiritual matters. The kohen — last week’s go-to doctor and this week’s handyman — orders everyone out of the house and attempts to remove the offending parts of the walls. He told the Israelites that if he couldn’t fix the problem, he will then call in the demolition crew, and tear down the house.
Before you call your town’s building inspector, this might be a good time to break out the metaphor machine.
The same way that individual bricks make up the physical structure of a house, so too does each person contribute to the strength of the household. You don’t have to dig deep in Judaism to find the expression “shalom bayit,” which literally means “peace of the household.” The phrase describes the idea of maintaining happy and satisfying family relationships. Basically, the Torah is teaching us in this passage that when shalom bayit fails, the ties between the people living in that house will crumble as well.
The text is also emphasizing that every person in the house is an important part of this process — or an individual “brick” that helps make up that household and supports the bigger picture.
Just as afflictions of the body can represent a person’s lack of control over sickness and health, a corroded house that can’t be fixed can symbolize the weakness of one’s household and family. The parsha is illustrating the worst-case scenario of a dysfunctional house and the consequences of destructive actions.
The Torah never makes any mention of different size bricks or stones — each one is equally important for the health of the house. This is an important message for both parents and kids: a family might find itself in crisis when all of its members are unable to work together and function as a unit, which is not always the easiest thing for teenagers and their parents to do. This week’s parsha stresses that your family’s strongest foundation depends on everyone showing love and respect for each other.
And that’s a lesson you can build on.
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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