SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, April 9, 2016
The Torah in Parashat Metzora discusses the laws of tzara’at ha-bayit, which apply when a discoloration appears on the walls of a home in Eretz Yisrael. If the discoloration meets the Torah’s criteria of tzara’at ha-bayit, we read, then the kohen declares a seven-day waiting period, after which he returns to determine whether or not the discoloration has spread. If it has, then he instructs the homeowner to remove the affected stones, replace them with new stones, and then line them with plaster (14:40-42).
The Mishna in Masekhet Negaim (14:6) establishes that the responsibility for removing the affected stones and replacing them falls upon both the homeowner and his neighbor with whom he shares the wall in question; this is a burden they must jointly share. Chazal reached this conclusion on the basis of the plural form used by the Torah in reference to these tasks (“Ve-chiletzu et ha-avanim…ve-hishlikhu…ve-lakechu avanim acheirot”). The plural form implies that this responsibility is borne by the homeowner as well as somebody else, and thus Chazal concluded that it is shared with the neighbor. The Mishna adds that on this basis it was said, “Oy la-rasha oy li-shkheino” – that a wicked person’s neighbor often suffers the consequences of the evildoer’s wicked deeds. The fact that the neighbor is penalized for the misfortune which befell the homeowner, whose house was stricken with tzara’at on account of his misdeeds, shows how those in a sinner’s vicinity often suffer the consequences of his wrongdoing.
The likely explanation of the Mishna’s comment is that a person’s social circle often bears a degree of responsibility for his failings. The process of tzara’at ha-bayit should perhaps be viewed as symbolic of a process of moral or spiritual rehabilitation, and thus the neighbor’s obligations may be understood as reflecting his responsibility to participate in this process. If the afflicted home is to be rehabilitated and rid of the ills that plague it, then the family’s social circle must play its role and take part in making the necessary changes to eliminate the “tzara’at” that currently afflicts the family.
Importantly, however, there is one part of the process for which the homeowner bears exclusive responsibility. The Mishna adds that only the homeowner, and not the neighbor, is responsible for bringing new earth and plastering the new stones. The Torah speaks of this stage of the process in the singular verb form – “ve-afar acher yikach ve-tach et ha-bayit” – indicating that this responsibility falls solely on the shoulders of the homeowner. The message, perhaps, is that the homeowner cannot cast all the blame or responsibility for his condition on his neighbors and his surroundings. While it is true that they likely played a role in his failings and must therefore participate in the process of recovery, ultimately, he must take personal responsibility for his condition. The wall between him and his neighbor must be rebuilt by them both, but the interior plastering is his sole responsibility. He must do what he can within his own home, in his own speech and conduct, to grow, change and improve.
This halakha reminds us that while our surroundings indeed have a significant impact upon us, nevertheless, we ultimately control what we say and do. We cannot blame all our shortcomings and failings on the people around us. As much as we want and hope for the people around us to help us in creating an appropriate environment, this does not absolve us from “plastering” our own “walls,” from doing all we can to improve ourselves irrespective of what’s happening outside.