This week, rabbis around the world take a deep sigh as they recognize that they must explicate upon the double parsha, Tazria-Metsora. Within these many verses lay the purification rituals for circumcision, menstruation, discharge, scabs, discoloration of the skin, affections of the hair and beard, and the disease known as tzara’at. It’s a regular bag of laughs. There are aspects of these portions that are seemingly relevant, and some that basically make the case for the irrelevance of the Torah as a whole. And there is one piece, above all others, that is discussed over and over by rabbis through the centuries: tzara’at. Before we continue, I think it best to explain that the disease mentioned in this portion, which causes the priest to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” upon its discovery, was translated into Greek with the word lepra, meaning “a scaly condition.” It was not until the Middle Ages, however, that the term lepra was identified with the condition known as leprosy, or in today’s terms, Hansen’s disease. Today’s leprosy is curable and is not highly contagious, but one need only to look in the books of our Torah, or in the books of other religions, historic or theological, to see that the leper in ancient times was the ultimate outcast, doomed to live alone and in pain, away from those considered “healthy.” Interestingly, modern scholars have determined that parts of our parsha actually look like they’re discussing eczema and psoriasis, impetigo, and gangrenous infections, in addition to Hansen’s disease. Either way, the disease in question, known as tzara’at, appears not only here in Leviticus but in Exodus when, Miriam is punished for criticism of Moses, a group is affected in Numbers, and when the prophet Elisha cures a Syrian general in 2 Kings. In other words, it is a well known ailment in our Tanakh.
If you study our parsha, you’ll read things like Leviticus 13:5,
“On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days.”
Or you might read Leviticus 13:12,
“if the priest sees that the eruption has covered the whole body—he shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean, for he has turned all white.”
In other words, it looks, from the outside, that the priest takes the role of the physician, making the call as to what is clean and unclean. However, the actions that the priest prescribes are not medical; the priests role in this aspect of Israelite life is ritualistic. In other words, the priest, when he isolates someone, or orders the washing of linens, is not attempting to cure the disease.
The reason why is that according to our sages, to be infected with tzara’at had very little to do with medical science. Indeed, the sages of the Talmud and Midrash, and many commentators after, are clear about the true cause of tzara’at. Tractate Arakhim, for example ,states:“Rabbi Yonatan said: seven sins are punished with tzara’at: Slander, bloodshed, vain oath, incest adultery, arrogance, robbery, and greed.”
The Midrash on Leviticus reminds us of Proverbs 16, which states:
“Six things Adonai hates; Seven are an abomination to God: A haughty bearing,
A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A mind that hatches evil plots,
Feet quick to run to evil, A false witness testifying lies, And one who incites brothers to quarrel.”
The Midrash argues that the punishment for all of these is tzara’at. However, looking deeper into the rabbinic works, it becomes clear which of these sins is the most emphasized as causing plague upon someone, and that is Rabbi Yohanan’s reference in the Talmud, in which we read:
“And Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: the retailing of evil talk is tantamount to denying God…Rabbi Yose further said: whoever retails evil talk is visited by tzara’at.”
The RAMBAM, Moses Maimonides, solidified this understanding in comments on our Mishnah by declaring that “Our Sages have said that tzara’at comes as punishment for the evil tongue, for its owner is isolated and can no longer harm people with his loose talk.”
“This will begin in his house,” Maimonides continues, “If he does not repent, the tzara’at will affect his bed and couches.”
In other words, tzara’at, whether one believes it to be leprosy or another disease, has nothing to do with physical health; it is, instead, a form of divine punishment for sin. Specifically, it is a punishment for slander, or Lashon Harah, evil speech. The rabbis have a great deal to say about this sin, and base their understanding upon the use of tzara’at upon those who slander or criticize in the Torah, such as Miriam slandering Moses, or the Israelites slandering God.
Lashon Harah, loose talk, evil speech, lying speech, gossip, whatever it is called by the sages, is known as one of the most damaging sins one can commit in Jewish thought. One need only skim through the pages of the rabbinic works to find the weight of this sin.
Resh Lakish said “one who slanders makes his sin reach unto heaven”
Rav Chama Bar Chanina said, quoting from Proverbs, “What is the meaning of the [verse] “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue”? Does the tongue have a hand? This verse tells you that what the hand can kill, the tongue can kill as well!”
From the Talmud: “The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood.”
The mystics were no less stringent on the sin of lashon harah, as the Zohar states: “God will accept repentance for all sins except one: giving another man a bad name.”
There are pages and pages of quotes from the rabbis and commentators up until present day discussing the damage slander and gossip can cause, with some saying it can lead to death, is tantamount to murder, and, as we have seen, one of the only sins deserving of a divine plague.
The power of gossip is a difficult lesson to learn, even with all of these prohibitions from our sages. That is why, when I am asked to teach on the subject, I always begin with a story:
The story is of a man who took to slandering his rabbi, going around his town telling lies and negative impressions of him. Eventually, the rabbi sat the man down and explained that lashon hara, slander, is like murder, it murders the reputation of a person. Caught in his acts, staring the rabbi in the face, the man began to feel guilty, and asked what he could do to rectify the situation. The rabbi asked the man to go home, take one of his feather pillows, and stand on a hill that overlooked the town. “Rip open the pillow,” the rabbi commanded, “and shake the feathers out. Then come see me tomorrow.”
The next day the man returned to the rabbi’s office, and reported that he had indeed taken one of his feather pillows, stood on the hill, ripped it open, and shook out the feathers into the wind. “Good,” said the rabbi, “now, I would like you to go and collect every one of the feathers, and put them back into the pillow.”
“I can’t do that!” the man replied, “surely the wind has taken some of them all across the town, and I will not be able to find them!”
The rabbi stared at the man, saying, “so it is with lashon hara, with gossip and slander. Once you send these evil words into the community, there is no way to undo the damage, no way to reach all those who have heard it and spread it. It is because of this that gossip and slander are like murder.”
If there is a lesson from tonight’s parsha, it is this: May we here at Temple Israel maintain the sanctity of this building, and this community, by guarding ourselves from evil speech. May we be a place where prayers, not slander, are what reach the high heavens.