By Rafi Ostroff
Head of the Religious Council of Gush Etzion
“Houses full of Every Good Thing”
The Rebbe of Husiatyn discussed the unique remarkable phenomenon of nega’im – physical blemishes – that appeared in the homes of Eretz Yisrael. There are two kinds of homes: physical homes and spiritual homes. When the people entered Eretz Yisrael, they found houses where the Canaanites lived and also houses of idol worship. They were commanded to destroy the houses of idol worship, but the physical homes of the previous inhabitants were a blessing, as is written: “And it will be, when your G-d brings you to the land which he promised to give to your fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov, to give you great and good cities which you did not build, and houses full of good things which you did not fill.” [Devarim 6:10-11].
The simple interpretation of this passage is that G-d gave us gifts when we entered the land – the houses of the Canaanites.
The Zohar writes that the houses of the Canaanites were built on impure foundations, and in order for them to be destroyed they were struck with nega’im (Tazriya, page 50). But this is contrary to what is written in the Midrash as quoted by Rashi (14:34) – that the blemishes were good news for Yisrael in that they would find treasures in the walls, hidden there by the Canaanites.
The Jewish Foundation of Moderation
Here is how the Rebbe explains the words of the Zohar:
“The main reference of the Zohar is to the cultural buildings of the other nations. The culture of the nation includes almost every facet of life in general: Faith and beliefs, education, economic behavior, structure of the society, art, literature, and special behavior traits. The cultural edifice of the Canaanites was founded on wrong opinions and evil faith, on impurity and abomination. And nega’im were sometimes sent into physical homes in order to wake the people up with respect to these matters. The blemishes were a symbol of the moral blemishes within the cultural edifices of the Gentiles... to show that a person from Yisrael is not allowed to build his home on foundations of the other nations and in their spirit. A home of Yisrael must be built only on a foundation of holiness and purity, justice and righteousness.”
At times we are so caught up in viewing ourselves as part of the world of culture that we forget that we have our own unique traits. The only proper way to adopt the culture of other nations, if we do this at all, is after a strict process of filtering and criticism. The treasure that the Jews found in the Canaanite houses is their ability to build their new spiritual homes on a strong basis of Judaism, without mixing in any waste of the culture of the other nations.
This treasure is a unique trait of Eretz Yisrael, as is noted by the Ramban, that nega’im will appear in houses only in the land, even though at first glance there does not seem to be any connection to the land, because the land is a heritage of G-d, and “the holy G-d dwells within it.” (Vayikra 13:47). The Rebbe explains:
“The entire issue of blemishes of the houses was meant to wake up Yisrael and to have them look at the goal of building in the land. They were meant to recognize their obligation to base the construction on the foundations of Judaism. And therefore, the laws of blemishes in the home did not apply until they had carefully considered the situation so that each and every one could identify his own needs. It was necessary for everybody to be familiar with what was his – that is, that he should be aware of the essence of Judaism and how this is most relevant for him.”
From 1939 to 2017
The Rebbe wrote the above material in the year 5699 (1939), a long time before one could say about his generation what can be said about our own – that we live in relative comfort and we have the time to worry about our cultural possessions. With G-d’s blessing, as the 69th anniversary of Yom Ha’astma’ut of the State of Israel approaches, we live in a generation which can find a moment to pause and to look around at the foundations of the edifice which we built from the cultural point of view. What achievements have we accomplished in literature and art? What style of art is most prominent in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art or among the students of Betzalel? Does this express the unique essence of the nation of Yisrael, or have we adopted Canaanite or European culture in our midst? What spiritual houses are we building for the next generations of the Jewish nation? As far as I am concerned, it is remarkable to see how the Rebbe found the time to think about a topic that is still relevant today, decades after his time. The Rebbe ended his essay as follows:
“All of this can teach us an important lesson for today. The physical buildings in Eretz Yisrael, no matter how important they are for settlement efforts, are important and desirable,no matter who does the building... However, the spiritual construction must be done as directed by men of Torah and faith in order that it will stand on holy foundations. We must struggle as hard as we can [using spiritual and moral weapons] (this comment appears in the original article) to make sure that the foundations of the spiritual edifice in Eretz Yisrael will be our Torah and our faith [for they are our life and our source of long lives]."