For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man (or woman), able to bridle the whole body as well. … For every species of beasts and birds, reptiles, and sea creatures are tamed and have been tamed by mankind. But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:2 and 7-8)1
The quotation from Yaacov (James) may seem to be an odd way of beginning this week’s thoughts on the Torah portion, Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59. Hang in there; it will make sense shortly. Tazria continues where Shemini left off, dealing with things that cause an individual to be ritually unclean. Parashat Tazria gets its name from the description of the ritual impurity and purification process of a woman who has just given birth (tazria), (Leviticus 12).
Chapter 13 moves on to the plague of tzara’at and the regulations concerning the disease and the afflicted individual. Tzara’at is primarily but not solely a skin affliction that is typically translated as leprosy. However, according to The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary,
While both tzara’at and leprosy (commonly known as Hansen’s disease) are characterized by skin lesions, otherwise there is little commonality between the two conditions. Tzara’at, unlike leprosy, afflicts clothing and buildings in addition to people. Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection, while tzara’at is a spiritual malady with physical manifestations that can be caused by one’s involvement in slander, murder, false oaths, incest, arrogance, robbery, or greed (see Bavli Arakhin 16a).2
At this point, the relationship with Yaacov’s (James’) writings becomes clear. According to our sages, a primary cause of tzara’at is centered on lashon hara or derogatory speech. This understanding is drawn from Numbers 12:10 when Miriam was stricken with tzara’at for her involvement in slandering Moses. Later this connection was reaffirmed as Moses wrote,
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)
Since tzara’at is recognized as the physical manifestation of a spiritual malady, one understands why the priests’ actions toward tzara’at and the metzorah (the one afflicted with tzara’at) were commanded. The priests were to examine and pronounce the tzara’at or metzorah as clean or unclean; if unclean, the metzorah was to be separate from the community so as not to spread the contamination. The priests then monitored the progression of the disease. If the metzorah was healed, no longer having any signs of tzara’at, the priest pronounced the individual clean and able to return to the community after they underwent the proper purification rites. During this process, from unclean to clean, the priest does not offer or even suggest any medical treatment or recovery program—just isolation from the community and periodic checkups (every seven days).
Interestingly, as stated earlier, tzara’at, unlike leprosy or other skin diseases, can also affect one’s clothes and even one’s dwelling. Understanding tzara’at as lashon hara, it can be inferred that none of human existence is immune to the repercussions of slanderous or derogatory speech. The lack of treatment indicates that the recovery would not be realized by external actions but rather by the individual recognizing and admitting the error of their way and then determining to change their pattern of behavior. James offered this solution to combat lashon hara,
Humble yourselves in the sight of ADONAI, and He shall lift you up. Do not speak evil against one another, brethren. (James 4:10-11)
Sha’ul (Paul) offered these words of guidance,
Let no harmful word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for building others up according to the need so that it gives grace to those who hear it. (Ephesians 4:29)
Not offering treatment for the disease does not make sense; even in ancient times, there were salves, ointments, and oils that could be prescribed as treatments. However, if tzara’at is due to lashon hara, derogatory speech, isolating the afflicted one from the community makes perfect sense, as James reminds us.
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of evil placed among our body parts. It pollutes the whole body and sets on fire the course of life—and is set on fire by Gehenna. (James 3:6)
If left unchecked, lashon hara can damage or even destroy the lives of individuals, families, and whole communities. Isolation from the community protects others and allows the perpetrator the time to consider their ways and hopefully repent, thus beginning the path to becoming entirely accepted back into the community.
May the plague of tzara’at stay far from our lives and dwellings, and may we seek to live our lives according to this exhortation from Kefa (Peter),
For, “The one who loves life, wanting to see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. He must turn away from evil and do good. He must seek shalom and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:10-11)
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.
2 Sarah Levy and Steven Levy, The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary, JPS Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2017), 86.