In this week’s Torah portion we read instructions for what to do if an eruptive plague arises on someone’s house. What does it mean to say that a house is afflicted by a plague, or something like a plague?
The description in the Torah text suggests that the plague is akin to mold, described like a disease in the walls. It is as though the house itself were alive and susceptible to infection. We could imagine that this Torah portion speaks merely of this kind of problem: when your house has termites, call the exterminator — when your house has leaks, call the roofer — when your house sprouts mold, call the priest.
But I think there’s something deeper here. What did William Shakespeare mean when his character Mercutio cursed, “a plague on both your houses”? For Shakespeare, a house meant a household, a family. If we read the Torah portion through this lens, the stakes are higher.
Sometimes, Torah says, a house needs to be scraped clean and then plastered again. And sometimes, even that isn’t enough — it’s a kind of mere whitewashing, and given opportunity, the problem will erupt again.
As we prepare to gather with our families and friends around the seder table, what are the places where our “house” needs to be scraped clean and then replastered? What’s the old emotional stuff we want to scrub away? Are we willing to do the work of removing what’s encrusted on the surface of our family relationships, and to expose what lies beneath?
In our broader community, what are the places where a plague has grown too deep — where merely cutting out a few problematic pieces won’t stem its spread, and we need to destroy the structure and build anew? Maybe it’s the plague of racism, or the plague of militarism, or the plague of ignoring someone else’s narrative or point of view. Are we willing to tear down what no longer serves us in order to build something different, something as-yet unknown?
At this season many of us are engaging in literal housecleaning. Maybe it’s that impulse toward spring cleaning which arises when the temperatures start to hover well above freezing. Maybe it’s the old pre-Pesach tradition of scouring every surface and getting ready to relinquish our hametz, our leaven, which the Hasidic tradition says can represent the puffery of ego.
As you clean for Pesach, consider this other kind of housecleaning, too. What behaviors or habits or patterns do you want to place in quarantine? What emotional dynamics in your household do you want to scrub away in order to meet the season of our liberation fresh and new?
I’m also posting this as a contribution to #blogExodus, a carnival of posts and tweets and updates on preparing-for-Passover themes, created by Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. This is for yesterday’s prompt, “Prepare.”