Understanding the Tzaraat on the Houses
The Torah Portion Metzora outlines the various forms of the affliction of tzaraat.(1) Having completed discussion of the tzaraat on the body, the Torah discusses the tzaraat that can appear on people's houses and outlines the painful process of purification. This includes removing all the possessions from one's home to avoid them becoming impure, and cutting out the afflicted stones from the house.
The Rabbinical sources offer two seemingly contradictory explanations as to why tzaraat will appear on someone's house. Rashi brings the Midrash that tells us that this was actually very beneficial for the people whose homes had tzaraat: The Emorites who lived in Canaan hid their valuables in the walls of their homes so that the Jewish people would not be able to benefit from them. There would have been no way of the Jews finding these treasures in the normal course of events. Therefore, God placed the tzaraat affliction on the part of the wall where the treasure was concealed, so that the stones hiding it would be removed, thus revealing the fortune.(2) This explanation implies that the tzaraat on the house was not a punishment for any wrong doing rather it was a means of providing the people with great riches.
On the other hand, the Gemara in Arachin clearly states that tzaraat on the houses was a punishment for the sin of tzarat ayin (stinginess).(3) The Gemara in Yoma gives an example of such behavior of a person who didn't want to lend his possessions to other people therefore he would deny owning the items that people asked to borrow. As a punishment his home would be struck with tzaraat and he would have to take everything outside. Consequently everyone would see that he really did own those items.(4) These Gemaras clearly indicate that tzaraat on the houses came as a punishment for sins. How do we resolve the contradiction between these Maamarei Chazal (sayings of the Sages): According to the source quoted by Rashi, if they deserved the reward of the treasure, why did that have to be accompanied by the suffering involved in the tzaraat striking their house. And according to the Gemaras, if they deserved to be punished, why should they benefit by finding the hidden treasure behind their walls?!
Rav Moshe Feinstein answers that it must be that the person whose home is struck with tzaraat is deserving of both the punishment and the benefit that arise as a result of the affliction. If he had never sinned then God would provide him with the money that he deserves in another, more pleasant fashion. And if he was undeserving of finding the Emorites' hidden treasure then the tzaraat on his house would not enable him to finding it. Therefore, the person whose house would be struck with tzaraat and then found the hidden treasure must look at both aspects of the Divine Providence. On the one had he can rejoice in God's kindness in granting him the newfound riches; but at the same time, he must try to repent and not allow himself to be distracted by the good tidings.(5)
It is possible to add that the nature of the reward is also connected to the sin that the person committed. He was guilty of being overly miserly and therefore resorted to dishonest tactics in order to protect his wealth. His mistake was that he approached acquisition of property with a derech hateva attitude. This means that he followed the regular laws of nature and common sense that dictate that giving charity or lending one's items will cause a person to suffer a decline in his wealth. He believed that being stingy would protect his wealth. Consequently, he is punished by suffering a financial loss with the damage to his home, and with the embarrassment of being exposed as a dishonest person who avoids lending his property. Yet perhaps the reward of finding the hidden treasure also teaches him a lesson with regard to his erroneous attitude. He believed that he had to resort to underhanded tactics to gain wealth, but the Torah tells him that God, with his Infinite power, can provide a person with wealth in any number of ways.(6) Thus, this man finds money in the most improbable of places - inside the walls of his own home! As well as benefitting him it should teach him that he need not exert excessive energy in acquiring wealth, rather he should recognize that God can provide him with everything that he needs.
We learn two very important lessons from the above explanation. Firstly, in a general application, we see that Divine Providence can work in such a way that God, in His Infinite Wisdom can reward and 'punish' someone at the same time. The Torah sense of punishment does not mean merely causing pain for no reason. Rather, Divine 'punishments' are ways in which God communicates with us, alluding to us that we should change our ways in specific areas. Thus, even when good tidings occur it is wise to observe any negative aspects to the outcome of the good news to discern if there are any underlying messages within the reward, as was the case with the tzaraat on the houses.
A second, more specific message relates to our attitude to acquiring possessions and money. The tzaraat on the houses teach us that too much effort in the realm of the physical world is fruitless. This is all the more so the case with dishonest or stingy behavior. A person must realize that there are 'harbeh sheluchim leMakom'; that God can provide us with whatever we need in the most creative of fashions, including through discovering treasure in the walls of our homes!
1. Vayikra, 14:34.
2. Rashi, Vayikra, 14:34, in the name of Toras Kohanim, 5:4).
3. Arachin, 16a.
4. Yoma, 11b.
5. Darash Moshe, Parshas Metsora, 14:34. Also see Ayeles HaShachar, Metsora, 14:34 who reaches a very similar conclusion to that of Rav Feinstein.
6. This is expressed in the Hebrew phrase that there are, 'harbeh sheluchim leMakom' - HaShem has many 'messengers' who can fulfill His will, in this case providing a person with money.