[Editor’s note: Some of the weekly Torah readings–called the weekly parasha– are hard to relate to, and this past week’s reading, Parshat Tazria/Metzorah, is among them. More difficult. Rabbinic student in the Aleph program Lisa Rappaport gave one of the most interesting approaches to it I haveve encountered, so I am sharing it with our readers.–Rabbi Michael Lerner]
This week’s parasha, Tazria-Metzora, is challenging, with parts that seem completely unrelatable to our lives. It is in this parasha that we learn about tzaarat, a spiritual affliction causing a white discoloration of the skin. It is often translated (or rather mistranslated) as leprosy. But leprosy is a physical condition with a physical cause, while tzaarat is a spiritual affliction that renders the sufferer tameh, or ritually impure.
Several things cause tzaarat, but the primary cause is leshon hara, translated literally as the evil tongue and commonly understood as negative speech (gossip). While tzaarat may seem strange and unrelatable, what is relevant in every era, in every generation, is the power of our words. Torah gives us the opportunity a couple times a year to examine our relationship to leshon hara–it comes up again later when Miriam is afflicted with with tzaarat. This is a good thing, because leshon hara is an insidious and destructive phenomenon. Of the 43 sins listed in the Al Chet confessional prayer, 11 of them are committed through negative speech.
Our sages teach us that tzaarat is a condition that only occurred during biblical times. The reason: our level of spiritual refinement then was higher and our tolerance for evil was very low. Over time, our spiritual and ethical sensibilities have become dulled. We are now able to endure corruption at levels that in biblical times were toxic.
It’s like the purity of a baby whose body is so new and sensitive that for the first few months of life can only drink milk. Anything else would pollute their tender systems. But as seasoned adults, we eat pizza and french fries and drink beer and soda. Giving these things to a baby would overwhelm their digestion. Yet we have developed a tolerance for these things. As compelling and tasty as they might be, they’re not always so good for us; kind of like the seductive appeal of leshon hara. Seemingly, we are able to withstand it. But just because our bodies don’t react as they did over 2,000 years ago, engaging in negative speech surely can’t good for us.
Perhaps in biblical times, the whitening of the skin that is a the tell tale sign of tzaarat served as a canary in the coal mine–a signal to the soul, to the psyche, that one might be travelling down the wrong path. Today, however it seems we are blind to the signs. So, how course have we become? How crass are our sensibilities? What are the consequences? These are important questions, especially if we consider how much has changed around acceptable speech, not just in the last two milenia…how about just the past year?
We’ve been catapulted into an new era where the rules are suddenly different. How does this affect the collective psyche when our leaders blatantly slander and harass, name call and defame? Lying is now just a natural and acceptable part of the conversation. Flat out lies. Fabrication in order to promote oneself. Falsehoods that damage the other. Lies that indelibly alter the course of someone’s life. Lies that destroy worlds. We are becoming increasingly and alarmingly desensitized to the devastating effects of evil talk.
Jewish tradition takes the transgression of leshon hara very seriously comparing it to theft and murder. The Talmud teaches us that “Evil talk kills three people; the speaker, the listener, and the one who is spoken of.”
In tractate Sanhedrin (4:5) we learn that whoever destroys a single soul, it’s as though a complete world has been destroyed; and whosoever preserves a single soul it’s as though a complete world has been preserved.
So it is with speech. When we create connections with our words we have the ability to manifest worlds of possibility and transformation. When we cause divisions with our words, we have the capacity to destroy entire worlds.
In Baruch She’amar, we proclaim that the Holy One spoke and all of existence came into being. This teaches us that speech forms realities. God gave us the gift of speech. Are we using it wisely? Maturely? Are we respectful when we speak? Since we can create or destroy with a single word, we have a lot of power–maybe too much. Perhaps there are times when silence is purest form of communication? It is a good practice for us to consider that with this blessing (and responsibility) of speech, and the power it holds, the very next word we say will make all the difference.