There are two things that I want to focus on this week as we consider the double portion of Tazria -Metzora, (Leviticus 12:1-15:33). First briefly of what tzara’at (13:2) is and probably is not. Then second, is the rabbinic understanding of what causes tzara’at. I consider this second aspect which is most important for us today.
First, to definitions. Most English editions of the Scriptures translate tzara’at as leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, which is a long-term bacterial infection. It is translated thus not because of the Hebrew but because of the Greek of the Septuagint lepra which moved into English as leprosy. However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh suggested that because tzara’at was treated by priests, rather than doctors, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a medical problem at all, but rather as an exclusively spiritual ailment. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzaraat-a-biblical-affliction/)
The idea that tzara’at is the sign of a spiritual condition rather than exclusively a physical one is suggested in Dr. Abigail Uhrman’s introduction to this week’s parasha.
This week’s parashah discusses tzara’at, a skin disease understood in rabbinic tradition as punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The public castigation that the metzora (the individual plagued by tzara’at) suffers is a powerful warning for us to “guard our tongues.” It was with words that God created the world, and our words have potential to build, create, and sustain life and human dignity, or to be a source of pain and destruction.http://www.jtsa.edu/guarding-our-tongues
While there is nothing in this week’s parasha which clearly states that tzara’at is a result of lashon hara, there is a hint of this correlation in the treatment of the individual so inflicted.
All the days during which the plague is on him he will be unclean. He is unclean. He is to dwell alone. Outside of the camp will be his dwelling.Leviticus 13:46
This hint is reenforced by the apparent linkage of the two in Deuteronomy as Moses reminds the Children of Israel of Miriam’s lashon hara against Moses in connection with his Cushite wife resulting in Miriam be placed outside the camp (see Numbers 12:1ff).
“Take care in the plague of tzara’at—be very careful to do all that the Levitical kohanim instruct you, just as I commanded them, so you are to take care to do. Remember what ADONAI your God did to Miriam, along the way when you were coming out from Egypt.Deuteronomy 24:8-9
Although lashon hara is a common term in Judaism it may be foreign to many non-Jews. Simply put,
Lashon Hara is any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual. In Hilchot Deot 7:5, Maimonides supplies a litmus test for determining whether something is or isn’t Lashon Hara: “Anything which, if it would be publicized, would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, or would cause him anguish or fear, is Lashon Hara.”https://torah.org/learning/halashon-review1/
The Chofetz Chaim takes this definition a bit further when he taught that,
“Lashon hara is forbidden not only when one’s intention is to condemn another or out of one’s hatred for another, but even when said in jest.”https://2halachot.org/en/english-halacha/laws-of-lashon-hara-3-3-4-38/
This warning from the Chofetz Chaim hit me between the eyes when I read it and then went straight to my heart. I have often used humor as a defense in tense situations and occasionally as a weapon when I wanted to strike back at someone who hurt or offended me. In such cases humor, most often sarcasm, was lashon hara. At one time, the sign “Sarcasm Spoken Here” would have been at home on my wall. Now I am consciously attempting to avoid such speech most vigorously.
Recall the words that Ya’acov wrote to his community, “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be. A spring doesn’t pour out fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it” (James 3:10-11)? Therefore, the choice is ours; with the words we speak we can build up or tear down, bring comfort and healing or death and destruction. Rav Shaul reminded the Yeshua-believers in Corinth, “Your boasting is no good. Don’t you know that a little hametz leavens the whole batch of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5:6) Continuing with the idea that little things can cause big problems, Ya’acov wrote that while the tongue is such a small thing it can cause great trouble, (James 3:5, my paraphrase).
The Psalmist wrote
Who can discern his errors? Cleanse me of hidden faults. Also keep Your servant from willful sins. May they not have dominion over me. Then I will be blameless, free from great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, ADONAI, my Rock and my Redeemer.Psalm 19:13-14, (12-13)
I think it is important to note that errors, hidden faults, and willful sins are all interconnected to “the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart.” Maybe this is why later he would say “Set a guard, ADONAI, over my mouth.Keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)
Returning to Dr. Uhrman whom I referenced at the beginning, she closed her teaching with these words of warning from psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, “Even when we have good intentions, we need to be wary of our linguistic choices. Our words can be limiting and damaging; they can reinforce our beliefs in fixed abilities and hinder our creative, intellectual, and human potential. Or, instead, our words can affirm our capacity to change, improve, and meet life’s challenges with honesty, ingenuity, and strength.” With these words in mind, I will close with the Peter’s words to his community,
“The one who loves life, wanting to see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.”
1 Peter 3:10
May we all see “good days” this week and keep lashon hara far from our thoughts and lips.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
** This article has been reworked from one which I wrote in April 2019.