D'var Torah: Tazria

April 5, 2019

 

This weeks Torah portion is called 'Tazria'. It's often combined with the next portion, M'tzora. At the beginning of Tazria, in chapter 12, we read that if a woman gives birth to a boy, she will be impure for 1 week. If she gives birth to a girl, she will be impure for 2 weeks. I'm certainly not going to try to deal with the possible inequality here. Instead, I'm going examine what comes next, beginning with chapter 13, where we see a very puzzling section of Torah that deals exclusively with one thing...a strange skin condition called tzaraht, usually described as leprosy, though it is believed that it was more akin to something like a curable fungus that afflicted not just skin, but fabrics, as well as plastered buildings and stone structures. How strange is that!?

 

Now, why would the Torah devote so much time to this strange condition? When we think of the Torah, we think of a book of laws, of morality, and of spirituality...not a medical manual, so why is so much time spent on this? The rabbis (and we're talking about the OLDE rabbis) couldn't accept that this was just simply an ancient document, one that could also include topics such as ancient diseases and maladies, along with advice on treatment. No, for the rabbis, these were ALL sacred and timeless sections, all imbued with meaning and lessons, given to teach us how to live our lives. So too did the rabbis believe this parsha had something to teach us. The answer was that this disease, called Tzaraht, was not a medical condition, like leprosy, but rather a wide ranging divine punishment, given by G-d, for......LaShon Harah....gossip... or derogatory speech. That IS quite a stretch, but it's not offered without some very clever literary detective work on the part of the rabbis.

 

Now before I go any further, I should point out that commentaries I've read say that this disease is NOT a punishment by G-d, nor is it about morality. In our modern way of thinking, it does seem pretty horrific to equate disease and affliction as punishments from G-d. And just so, the reasons for these afflictions are not stated in the laws of Leviticus. That being said, there is a midrashic play on the word for leprosy, M'tzorah, that it is shorthand for Motzi shem rah, meaning someone who brings out a bad name about someone else...in other words, a slanderer. And this leads us back to LaShon Hara.

 

Our sages were able to connect this condition with hateful speech. They pointed out 2 important passages in the Torah to drive home their point, and I hope it will resonate with everyone. First, I want you to remember when Moses sister, Miriam, said unkind words about her brother. What happened? That's right! She was afflicted with TZARAHT. Another, maybe lesser, instance occurred back in Exodus, in chapter 4, when Moses encountered the burning bush. In his conversation with G-d, he, Moses, spoke negatively about the Israelites, claiming that they would not believe him because G-d did not appear before them. As part of the signs G-d instructed Moses to show the Israelites, he asked Moses to put his hand on his chest, and it came away leprous, kind of a precursor to Miriam's experience. Ok, I think this is a bit more of a reach, but remember, this is our sages trying to extract meaning in a very strange section, and it does make an important point concerning LaShon Harah.

 

The rabbi's teach us about the need to avoid gossip and speaking ill of others. Indeed, they devote much time and thought to this subject. In fact, they equated LaShon Harah with murder. Killing, if you will, 3 people in the process. First, the person about whom the gossip is spoken. Second, the person speaking the gossip. And third, the person who listens to the gossip.

 

There has certainly been much talk in the last few months concerning how words can hurt... and how they can heal. We know all too well how the words someone might speak, and hear, can contribute to devastating consequences. The rabbis teach us that G-d created the universe with a few words, and G-d can destroy the universe with a single word. We are created in G-d's image, and we can also do the same. With words, we can tear down, or we can build up. So, who do we want to be? People who destroy, or people who heal? I know what I would like the answer to be. Shabbat Shalom

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