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Vayikra/Leviticus 14:36 The priest shall command and they shall clear the house before the priest comes to see the affliction
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If a house looks as if it might be exhibiting the symptoms of tzara'at, then the priest is summoned to inspect the house and issue a ruling, either that the house is not affected, or to seal the house for seven days to see what happens. The Jewish commentators are all concerned with why the house should be emptied before the priest examines the house. Gunther Plaut points out that "the items in the house do not become ritually defiled until the priest declares the house infected. The owner may protect against loss by removing the contents in advance of the examination." In other words, Baruch Levine confirms that "once the priest arrives and quarantines the house, everything inside it becomes impure as well - at the very least, those vessels whose form and function make them susceptible to contamination." What is susceptible in this way? Drazin and Wagner explain that "while non-earthenware vessels can be immersed in water to become clean again, and food can be consumed even if impure, earthenware vessels cannot be purified so would have to be destroyed once the house was declared 'unclean'."
Following a different thread through the argument,Rashi comments that "all the while that a priest does not become involved, there is no law of impurity there." Unlike the situation where a person dies, when everything that is in the tent automatically becomes instantly unclean (B'Midbar 19:14-15), ritual impurity does not start until the priest declares it to be so. Until the words of the declaration pass his lips, everything in the house, even the house itself in spite of the symptoms it appears to have, are ritually pure. As Richard Elliott Friedman explains, "People and things that are in the house before it is sealed are not impure; but anyone who enters the house during the week when it is sealed is rendered impure. Therefore they clear the house before the priest's examination."
Notice that the Hebrew verb - the Pi'el 3mp affix form from the root , meaning to clear, remove or empty - is plural. The verb is prefaced by a vav-reversive, to make it future: "they shall clear".Targum Onkelos retains that plurality in the Aramaic translation - - to emphasise that the whole family was expected to participate in the clearance operation so that that everything could be removed speedily, before the priest arrived. Good and bad things alike are a community affair - everyone pitches in to help clear the house, to salvage the family's belongings. Commenting specifically on the phrase "and they shall clear the house before the priest comes", Ovadiah Sforno asserts: "But he shall not come before this". It is as if the priest delays his arrival to make sure that there is time for the clearing to be done, so that nothing should be lost. Last week's drash talked about the connection the Rabbis made between tzara'at and the sins of gossip and slander, so the Sforno continues, "In the interim, there will be time for the the owners to pray and repent as well as time for the priest's prayers." The owners know that the priest is on his way; he will be coming shortly - they must prepare: firstly, by clearing the house and, secondly, by repenting of any such sins and praying for forgiveness and a change of heart. The priest too can use the time to pray for HaShem's mercy that he won't have to close up the house or declare it unclean, with all the resulting work and cost, and that the owners will have acted in the appropriate way.
The Sforno, however, does put his finger on an important point: G-d doesn't just act out of a clear blue sky, with no warning; He always provides ample opportunity for people to prepare and be ready for Him to come. Noah, for example, spent many years building the ark1; a long time of witness even if, according to the text, it was silent. On numerous occasions, G-d warns His people through the prophets that an event is going to happen, that their behaviour is about to trigger His response, or that He is about to change their situation. Isaiah spoke about the figure who would restore Israel, "He says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose'; saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid'" (Isaiah 44:28, ESV), which Ezra records was fulfilled over seventy years: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The L-RD, the G-d of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah" (Ezra 1:2, ESV). In fact, the prophet Amos generalises this and tells us that "the L-rd G-D does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7, ESV). Another clear example, this time from the days of the Early Church, is found in the book of Acts: "Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)" (Acts 11:27-28, ESV), where we have not only the prediction but the fulfillment in the same verse. G-d's purpose in warning us is two-fold: firstly so that when it happens, He will be glorified - "'You are My witnesses,' declares the L-RD, 'and My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after Me'" (Isaiah 43:10, ESV); secondly, so that we may prepare and take action to be ready for what He is about to do: "'Yet even now,' declares the L-RD, 'return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments'" (Joel 2:12-13, ESV).
Towards the end of His earthly ministry, Yeshua spoke about a time that was to come, for which the people needed to be ready, needed to change their behaviour. He borrowed Isaiah's parable about the vineyard and extended it to apply to the Jewish leaders of His day. When He got to the words, "When harvest-time came, [the landowner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his share of the crop" (Matthew 21:34, CJB), His audience would have thought, "Naturally; of course, why not?", because they understood the commercial relationship between a landowner and his tenants. Rent has to be paid, that is what happens. Rabbi Akiva told a parable to illustrate this: "Everything is given against a pledge, and a net is spread out over all the living (cf. Ezekiel 32:3); the store is open and the storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors go round regularly every day and exact dues from man, either with his consent or without his consent, and they have that on which they can rely in their claims, seeing that the judgement is a righteous judgement, and everything is prepared for the banquet" (m. Pirkei Avos 3:16). Borrow as necessary, but know that it must be repaid one way of the other; the day will certainly come when repayment must be made, so be ready.
Yeshua spoke about ten girls who were awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom at a wedding. Jewish weddings always happened in the evening, after dusk, in those days, so it was certain that they would need lamps. Five of the girls had been sensible and brought flasks of spare oil, but five brought no spare. The bridegroom did not arrive until midnight, after several hours of burning and when the girls awoke at the noise, they all trimmed their lamps but the foolish girls - who had brought no spare oil - noticed that their oil was about to run out. While they rushed off to buy some more, the bridegroom arrived and everyone who was ready - including the five girls who had brought spare oil - went in to the marriage feast. A little later, the five girls who had gone to buy oil returned with their lamps burning again, but the door was already shut and they were not allowed in. Yeshua's closing words: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Matthew 25:13). How terrible, to be so nearly ready and waiting, only to fall at the last minute because of not having brought spare oil! Yeshua then went on to tell the story of the man who went on a journey, leaving sums of money with his servants to take care of in his absence. In Matthew's gospel, that story is followed by the Sheep and the Goats. Do you hear what Yeshua is saying? Just like the houseowner whose house is about to be examined by the priest, we must be ready.
Rav Sh'aul warns the Thessalonians: "For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the L-rd will come like a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2, ESV). He knows that they should be ready, adding, "But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief" (v. 4, ESV). Even Yeshua did not know exactly when He would return, telling the disciples, "Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only ... Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matthew 24:36,44, ESV).
1. - Some say 120 years, based on B'resheet 6:3, but calculating the ages of Noah's children at the various points in the narrative and allowing them all to be old enough to have found wives, suggests somewhere between 50-75 years of ark-building.
Further Study: Joel 2:11-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Application: Have you done everything you can to be ready for the return of the L-rd? You know, there's ready and then there's ready - where are you? Why not make a list today of those things you know need fixing and determine not to put them off any longer. Make sure you are really ready today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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