Like every year, Line Amselem’s family is doing the Pessah cleaning.1 She recounts this family story in her first book of short stories: “Each year for Pessah we cleaned everything in the house, we repainted…Mother would tell us that in Morocco everybody even whitewashed the outside of the house so that everything would be “as white as milk”. Mother explained this with a little self-satisfied smile and her eyes would shine. But then we realized that we were not doing enough…when the next Sunday father had bought the necessary material, we would take care of the wall paper…each year we would re-do the wall paper in the living room […] Layer by layer, year by year the wall paper got thicker, the living room was padded by a kind of thick cardboard, which sounded hollow. Everybody was happy when we changed the wallpaper, but it was also heart-wrenching. My feeling was that with each layer we were left with less room in which to live. I began dreaming of a day when we would remove all this wall paper and I wondered what we would do with all the extra space.”
While reading this biographical story, I speculated on what would have happened if Line’s family had discovered a crack in the wall, or even worse, mould or rot resembling the tzaraat described in our Torah portion for this week.
The description of the phenomenon of tzaraat of a house starts with the following verse: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (Leviticus 14:34)
This verse is a mystery that raises several questions: why should God inflict such a plague on some of the people’s houses, when they finally reached the Promised Land? Moreover, no reason is given for God inflicting such a plague. Why is the verb ‘to give’ used in both instances, the first time when referring to ‘the giving’ of the land – noten and then to ‘the giving’ of the plague – venatati as if they were simultaneous?
According to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 17:6), it was interpreted as a good omen for the Israelites. The ritual of emptying the house when one discovers a reddish – greenish stain on the wall, and if necessary, pulling out the stones, would have enabled the people of Israel to find treasures hidden by the previous occupiers – the Amorites, who had fled.
However, another Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 17:3) interpreted this passage as a curse sent by God in order to punish the people by spreading slowly but surely this curious “disease”. In this context the emerging of tzaraat is a result of a sin, that of being greedy. “What does the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He causes tzaraat to alight on his house and as he takes out his household effects, people see and say: “Did he not say: “I have none”? See how much wheat is here, how much barley, how many dates! Cursed be the house with such cursed inmates.” (Leviticus Rabbah 17:2).
The Midrash describes a people who, after years of wandering, of fear and insecurity, is finally returning to a kind of normality. They settle in a land, build houses and look after their families rather than being preoccupied by the larger community. Their focus shifts to more personal and probably more selfish concerns. This behaviour, if it is not quickly dealt with, can become a bad habit. It is easy to see why this would have disturbed the Sages.
Nowadays also, the search for material security leads us to accumulate goods. Most of the time, we forget that our possessions are temporary and we tend to grasp them as the Israelites held tight to the land, Eretz achuzatchem (Leviticus 14:34) from the root – a ch z – meaning to grasp.
When we are given something, at the same time we are given the anxiety of losing it and for some of us it can turn into an obsession, a kind of plague – nega. In the Bible, the plague is materialized, made visible by God in the house and it can take some time until we are ready to acknowledge it and ask for help.
In our parashah however, help is at hand in the person of a priest, who diagnoses the nature of the problem and then provides the people with a ritual. Transposed to modernity, once one diagnoses one’s ‘plague’ – the moral suffering, the neurosis, one may seek help from a therapist.
Similarly, the traditional Pessah cleaning of the house, can itself become a neurosis, as seems to have been the case in Line’s family. Ultimately, it resulted in the sensation of “diminishing the space” and stifling their freedom. Line’s personal haggadah is filled with nostalgia stuck in the layers of the wallpapers and while reading her story, we can feel how those layers overwhelm her.
Our own families carry the haggadot of previous generations, some of them are wonderful and some are tragic, some are useful and some may become our stumbling blocks. Even if we seem settled in a country and in a home, in our minds we may continue to wander with the suitcases of our forefathers and foremothers, to whose baggage we add our own.
Pessah and more specifically the Seder table is often the occasion of passing on these metaphorical suitcases of stories and memories, to the next generation, with all their weight.
We have to sort out our stories, and inwardly “digest” them, before we pass them on. Clearing, cleaning and cleansing may then take on a fuller meaning and be transformative. It doesn’t mean watering down our family story or our popular history, or indeed embellishing it. We simply have to follow them through to be released from the bondage of past generations.
Freeing ourselves is about being able to throw out all that binds us and “ferments” in our interior, be it our homes or our minds.
By so doing, we will eventually rid ourselves of fears and insecurity so as to be able to open our hearts, start anew, ready to be rather than to possess or to grasp, and thus fully enjoy the liberating message of Pessah.
Hag Pessah Kasher vesameah.
Daniela Touati Student rabbi
1 Line,a former high school colleague, of Jewish Franco-Moroccan descent, is now a senior lecturer in Spanish literature, in “Petites histoires de la rue Saint Nicolas” Edition ALLIA p.16-17, translated by Daniela Touati