There is a point about the ceremony of the מצרע that I like:
For 2000 years, no one really understood the connection between the tweets of birds and לשון הרע.
In 2006, human beings were given the ability to tweet, to publicly declaim anything and everything that pops into their minds. Based on the results, I fear Dr. Thomas was too optimistic in his interpretation of birdsong.
But I want to focus on another aspect of צרעת: צרעת הבית. We know that צרעת is a punishment for a number of things, most prominently לשון הרע:
The connection to לשון הרע is made very strongly, based on the fact they are in a single paragraph in דברים:
The Ibn Ezra, who generally rejects דרש, notes that what is דרש in ויקרא, ”אל תקרי מצורע אלא מוציא שם רע“, is פשט in דברים.
But Rashi seems to have a different perspective on, specifically, צרעת הבית. He doesn’t read it as a punishment.
Rashi is looking at the parallel to a later pasuk:
The Rambam, based on the Tanchuma, explicitly says צרעת הבית is a punishment like the other forms of צרעת:
And it’s worth noting that Rashi’s comment is not a literal quote from the midrash. It’s a blend of two midrashim, one of which calls צרעת הבית a בשורה, ”good news“ without any details. Ramban reads the “good news” very differently: the fact that ה׳ cares enough about us to punish us is a sign of His relationship.
And the second source doesn’t say anything about צרעת הבית being a בשורה, it just states as a matter of fact that the Canaanites hid their valuables in the walls.
Rashi seems to be going out of his way to read צרעת הבית positively.
Another example: the owner of the house has to remove all their belongings to the street.
to the Midrash:
Artscroll notes the different interpretations and says אין הכי נמי, ”[t]wo very different explanations are given by the Sages and cited by the commentators“. Rashi, in fact, considers צרעת הבית is not a punishment like the other forms of צרעת.
I would propose that Rashi has to agree that צרעת is a negative thing. However, as we’ve noted, it is generally taken to be a divine response to things like לשון הרע, גסות הרוח and צרות העין. These are more character traits, bad מידות, than sins. They are more in the realm of מוסר than הלכה. And you can’t change character by punishing. I talk to parents about this all the time. To change a habit or a character trait, the person has to want to change. They need to buy in to the program.
If I want to quit smoking, I could start a program where someone follows me around with a baseball bat and hits me over the head every time I lit up. But after a day, I’d quit—not smoking, but the program. Negative reinforcement (response is strengthened by removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus) only works if the person can’t get out of the reinforcement therapy entirely, like a prisoner or a child. Otherwise what is reinforced is the behavior of “don’t go to this therapist any more”. Or, for teenagers, “lie to my parents and hide my dysfunctional behavior”.
So צרעת starts, at least, as positive reinforcement for the good behavior: acknowledge that a problem exists, go to the כהן for purification, and you will be rewarded. It’s only if that doesn’t work that ה׳ increases the consequences (and, of course, ה׳'s reward and punishment is the ultimate example of being unable to escape negative reinforcement).
It’s a useful lesson in dealing with our own children.