In a peculiar statement, Rashi (14:4) quotes a Midrash which says that after one’s house contracted tzara’at, and its walls were knocked down, the Jewish people would find treasures that were left there by the original owners. The obvious inconsistency, however, is that tzaraat is supposed to be a bad thing- why would we reward a person during their punishment?!
In order to find out, let us take a step back and understand tzaraat. While the most common cause for this spiritual skin disease is speaking poorly of others, another cause is “tzarut ayin”, loosely translated as ‘stinginess’. A person who is unwilling to help others for the sake of helping only oneself. With this in mind, the Kli Yakar explains why his house, his most coveted property, is what is afflicted with tzaraat. Among the processes of purifying one’s house, is also the requirement to remove all of one’s belongings, displaying them publicly for all to see. While this may seem, on the one hand, to allow a person to continue his or her ways by saving his wealth, what it also does is the opposite: It shows everyone, publicly, all of the possessions he garnered for himself, in contrast to what he gave to others. As he himself looks at all of his wealth, out on the sidewalk, he will inevitably start to reflect on what he needed and what was unnecessary. What he truly wanted for himself, and what he should have given away.
As they knock down the walls of his house, he will then find a “treasure”. But this treasure is far from being a reward. Instead, it’s a test: What will he do with all of this “extra” money? Will he keep it to himself, repeating the sin that got him into this mess (literally)? Or will he decide to give to others, rectifying his previous misdeeds? Through this public display of wealth, the hope is that he realizes his own stinginess, embarrassed by the publicity, and changes his focus- from inward, to outward, much like his possessions.
We may not see any tzaraat nowadays, but we sure find stinginess. The most obvious stinginess shows itself with money, but it extends well beyond that as well. How do we balance leisure time and time spent helping others? How engaged are we in a conversation, for instance, when we know our favorite dinner, or sports game, is waiting for us? Are we willing to help co-workers grow, or are we too concerned for our own upward mobility? The truth is that we all have found treasures in our lives- whether it be financially, professionally, or simply with our free time. These too, are our modern-day tzaraat tests. We can either keep all of the treasure for ourselves, or we can share some with others. One will entrench our stinginess, the other will make us better people. We all have treasures, but they’re not all rewards.