When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, I will place a tzora'as affliction upon a house in the land of your possession." (Leviticus 14:34)
The last of the various forms of tzora'as is that which affects homes. That form of tzora'as was unknown until the Jewish people entered Israel. According to the Sages, the previous inhabitants hid their valuables in the walls of their homes to prevent them from falling into the hands of the conquering Jewish army. When the walls of these houses were subsequently struck with tzora'as, necessitating the removal of parts of its walls and, in some cases, the destruction of the entire house, these hidden treasures were discovered by the new house owners.
This is extremely puzzling. We are also told that tzora'as in the walls of homes was a punishment for selfishness. Why should those who displayed the extremely negative characteristic of selfishness have been rewarded with the discovery of hidden treasures?
The Torah tells us that before the Kohen comes to inspect the suspected discoloration to determine whether there is in fact tzora'as, all the contents of the house are to be removed (Leviticus 14:35). That way they do not become impure if the house is declared to have tzora'as.
The Midrash, however, adds another reason for removing all the vessels: It is a corrective for the selfishness which causes tzora'as in the first place. Selfish people often pretend that they have less than they do, to avoid lending others their possessions or giving tzedakah. Having to remove all his possessions in public causes him acute embarrassment and helps to atone for and correct his selfishness.
The Mishnah (Nega'im 12:5), however, gives a totally different explanation of the removal of the contents from the house: Divine concern for the property of a Jew. Only relatively inexpensive earthenware vessels cannot be easily purified by immersion in a Mikveh. Nevertheless, God is concerned with even this small loss, and allows the removal of all vessels before the house is declared impure.
One might have thought that if the intention was to cure selfishness, a lesson on the unimportance of material possessions would be more fitting, and not one which conveys the value of every penny!
The truth, however, is that selfishness - literally tzorus ayin, a narrow eye - is the result of not appreciating the true value of material possessions, and viewing them from a very narrow perspective. We are taught that tzaddikim value their material possessions even more than their lives. Thus, Yaakov put his life in danger to retrieve some inexpensive earthenware vessels.
Earthenware is unique in that it contracts tumah, spiritual impurity, only through exposure (of the source of impurity) to its inside surface, but not through contact with the outside walls of the vessel. Why are earthenware vessels singled out in this fashion?
The value of any vessel can be measured in two ways: in terms of the intrinsic value of the material from which it is made, or in terms of its functional value. The materials of an earthenware vessel have little intrinsic value. Their utility alone gives earthenware vessels their value. In order for something to contract ritual impurity, it must have a value. Hence, an earthenware vessel becomes impure only through contact with its functional part - the inside - and not through contact with the materials of the outside wall.
A tzaddik views his material possessions as earthenware vessels - i.e., of no intrinsic value themselves, but rather deriving their importance only from their function. Material possessions, in his view, are tools in the service of God. They may, for instance, allow him to do acts of kindness and benefit others. Both his body and his material possessions are means to serve God. They differ only in that the body is acquired as a "birthday present." The acquisition of material possessions requires effort. Thus his material possessions are more precious to the tzaddik than his own body because their acquisition required more effort. The tzaddik's perspective on possessions contrasts with the narrow perspective of the one who sees only the personal benefit his possessions can bring him.
When the person whose house was afflicted with tzora'as was made aware of God's concern for every Jew's material possessions, his selfish view (tzaras ayin) was challenged and the corrective process begun. The embarrassment of being exposed to the neighbors' scrutiny was another aspect of the same process. The removal of the vessels to the public domain hints to the fact that their purpose is not just to serve oneself.
GOLD IN THE WALLS
The valuables hidden by the Emorites (Canaanites) were tainted and contaminated by intense selfishness. The Emorites hid them to deprive the Jews from benefiting from them, even though they were doomed to lose them anyway. In the hand of people with a tendency toward selfishness, this wealth would have been terribly detrimental. Therefore God utilized the tzora'as as a vehicle to provide the wealth in a manner designed to correct the evil of selfishness. The victim of tzora'as was forced to recast his attitudes toward material possessions prior to receiving this new bounty.
If one fails to learn the lesson of tzora'as afflicting the house, his selfishness will grow into haughtiness. Then his clothes, called by the Sages the instruments of honoring a person, will be afflicted as well. If he still does not heed the warning, he will descend yet further until he acts with total disregard for anyone but himself. That latter attitude is manifested as lashon hara and motzi shem ra, speech designed to denigrate others. As a punishment the perpetrator's very body will be scourged with tzora'as.
We can now understand what appear to be conflicting opinions regarding the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) says that they did not treat each other with respect. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 61:3) says that they exhibited tzarus ayin, selfishness, with regard to their Torah and did not share it with one another.
Torah is one's most precious possession, but it must not become a means of personal aggrandizement. When one truly appreciates his fellow Jew and honors him, he desires to share with him his tools for service of God. In this vein, sharing one's Torah is the supreme expression of honor for one's fellow man. Hence the two descriptions of the faults of the students of Rabbi Akiva are in fact one.