Sometimes a particular parashah has a message that is direct and clear to even the inexperienced reader. At other times, we have to search for the meaning, and once found, we feel uplifted, spiritually connected, and find the teaching to fit snugly into our own value system. But sometimes, the message is not only obscure, but once understood with the help of Torah commentators, we find the need to still re-shape the biblical information for it to speak to us today.
This week’s parasha, Tazria, is not easy to read. It presents rituals of purification for a woman after childbirth and the methods for diagnosing and treating a variety of skin diseases. Metzora continues the discussion of skin diseases and the purification rituals for a person cured of them. There is also attention to appearances and treatment of fungus or mildew in the home, and on it goes. I remember reading this the first time, years ago and thinking, you’ve got to be kidding! I just re-read it, word for word, and I still initially react the same – Where is the holiness in these discussions? At face value, these chapters provide us with an important view of ancient medicine and ritual, and we see the priest, not only in his religious role, but also as a kind of diagnostician. However, for us to connect to these passages today, we need a bit of help from Torah commentators and our wise sages.
Much has been written on the concept of tzara-at, scaly infections, leprosy, a state of impurity. The Sages (in Leviticus Rabbah) considered leprosy to be a punishment for the sins of slander and malicious gossip. They teach that gossip, like leprosy, is highly contagious. One infected person can spread a malicious rumor to many others. Although pretty horrified at the thought that people who were afflicted with illness believed they were being punished, we could understand how that came to be. The ancients were undoubtedly baffled by skin diseases. Swellings, rashes, boils, and skin discolorations must have frightened and bewildered them. Often they watched these symptoms progress into terminal diseases. Knowing little about the cause or treatment of such infections, it would make sense to conclude that they must be the result of God’s displeasure. It may explain why those diagnosed with such infections were labeled as unclean and isolated from the rest of the community. If they were considered cursed by God and impure, touching them or anything that they may have touched could spread the curse to others.
In support of their beliefs, the interpreters of Torah focus attention upon the record of major biblical personalities who are said to have been afflicted with skin disorders. Rashi points out that Moses suffered from a skin disease after he complained to God that the people of Israel would not listen to him. Miriam was also stricken with a skin disease because she slandered her brothers by gossiping about their relationships with their wives as well as embarrassing Moses publicly by questioning his marriage to a Cushite woman. Rabbi Nachman, quoting Rabbi Yochanan, carries it further and argues that the serious skin infections mentioned by the Torah are the result of seven types of behavior: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.” As more evidence, Maimonides also maintains that tzara’at is not a natural phenomenon but rather “a sign and wonder for the people of Israel to warn them against leshon hara, evil talk.” And why the quarantine ordered by the priest? Perhaps by being in isolation, it was meant to prompt a person to ask God’s forgiveness; it was a time to reflect and reconsider one’s actions. In confronting one’s shortcomings, honestly scrutinizing one’s treatment of others, there is chance for personal improvement and change. Leshon hara – it slips out of our mouths before we get a chance to sometimes stop it. If we would only remember to take a breath, think for just a moment before saying something hurtful, unkind, or offensive. It happens within families, between friends, in the work place and within our personal communities.
Like many, I have been devastated by hurtful words; although not as serious as slander or malicious gossip, words that come out in anger or in response to emotional pain, stay with us for a long time – sometimes forever. I would guess that each of us can painfully remember a harsh comment, expressed even years ago – either as the one who forgot to take that breath before speaking or the one who was on the receiving end – I don’t know which is worse. If only the pain could then work as a helpful guide to us as we move forward in life.
Punishment of skin disease is harsh, but perhaps the message in our tradition is that leshon hara is truly destructive, simultaneously destroying more than one person – if it is malicious gossip, then it will destroy the one who relates the gossip, the one who listens to it, and the one it concerns. While we may reject the connection between skin diseases and behaviors, seeing no medical evidence between such afflictions and what people say or do, it does send an important message. The spread of lies, gossip, slander, character assassination, or derogatory statements, nasty comments, hurtful words can infect society and destroy human lives. As uncomfortable as we are with the drawing of this parallel, commentators are correct in pointing out the damage that evil talk brings to our community and to individuals.
We are told of a peddler who went from town to town crying out: “Who wants to purchase the secret of guaranteeing a long and happy life?” When a rabbi challenged the peddler to prove that he possessed such a secret, the peddler opened a Tanach to the Book of Psalms. He then pointed to the words, “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.”
What a great goal for every person to strive toward, to be known as someone who seldom, if ever, has a nasty thing to say about another. How many of our moms were right when they taught, a well -known piece of guidance. In my life, my own mom, zichrano livracha, stated it on a very regular basis; I passed it on to my daughters, Leorah and Alisa, throughout their growing up, and I know my grandchildren and “my children” in our school, can finish this sentence…If you don’t have something nice to say then do not say anything at all!
In a collection called Wellsprings of Torah, Alexander Zusia Friedman states: A person may think, “Of what importance are my words? A word has no substance, neither can it be seen or touched.” It is true that words have no substance and cannot be seen, but, like the wind, they can cause entire worlds to crash. We each have the opportunity to ponder the power of the word. We sometimes are enlightened through the lives and sometimes the pain of fellow congregants. If folks are lucky and wise, they come to understand the power of words and have the opportunity to try and mend the wounds caused by harsh, thoughtless statements. To our sadness, we also witness the tragic damage that sometimes happens within a family when it becomes too late for any repair. We all have a responsibility as members of this sacred community, to take it all to heart, to take a breath before considering our words, and may we do our best to role model gentle behavior for one another. Kein yihi ratzon.
- Shabbat Vayikra - March 13, 2019
- Shabbat T’rumah - February 7, 2019
- Shabbat Va-eira - January 2, 2019
- Shabbat Vayeshev - November 27, 2018
- Shabbat Vayeira - October 24, 2018
- Shabbat Vayeilech - September 12, 2018
- Shabbat Re’eh - August 7, 2018
- Shabbat Balak - June 26, 2018
- Shabbat Nasso - May 23, 2018
- Shabbat Tazria - April 10, 2018