Tazria-Metzora: A Plague Upon You!

One of my favorite Talmudic maxims is: “[G-d] created the Evil Inclination, and the Torah as its antidote.” (Kiddushin 30b). 

I like it for two reasons. 

First, it makes Torah, Judaism, and G-d relevant to every moment of our lives.  We – apparently, I am not the only one! – must grapple with the constant internal struggle to do what is right instead of doing what we want.  (See also, the statement in the Ve’hafta prayer: “Do not follow the urgings of your heart and eyes.” Numbers 15:39) 

Second, while it acknowledges G-d as the Creator/Source, G-d is not its focus; we are.  This is consistent with my approach to the “Jewish ‘Religion.’”  G-d, taken as a “given,” is not the focus; ethical behavior (required by G-d) is. 

This perhaps explains why our tradition interprets this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora -- which deals with skin diseases – as addressing gossip, slander, and other “evil speech” (lashon hara).  The sages derived from the text many lessons about how we are to exercise great caution in speaking to and about others. 

For example, the Torah requires that as to the one diagnosed with a skin disease:

His clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: “Unclean! Unclean!  All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his dwelling be. (Leviticus 13:45-46). 

We would most likely understand this passage to be a straight-forward public health directive intended to limit the spread of contagion.  We might also consider it somewhat cruel by requiring an already afflicted and suffering person to publicly humiliate him- or herself on the way to banishment.  

But such is a much different perspective than that of our tradition.

Our sages understood the referenced “plague” to be evil speech, reading “metzora” as “motzi shem ra” “bringing forth a bad name (about someone).”  “Unclean!” refers to behavior.  

So reprehensible is evil speech, they taught, that G-d does not accept the prayers of the perpetrator.  Therefore, crying “Unclean!” aloud is necessary to alert others that their prayers for spiritual recovery are needed. (Shmirat Haloshon 1:7).  The Talmud furthers this principle by teaching that anyone who is suffering should make his/her plight known to the community, so that they will pray to G-d for mercy on his/her behalf (as well as take any possible steps to relieve the suffering). 

Thus, from these Torah verses we derive many ethical lessons.  

To fight our evil inclination by exercising great care in how we speak of others.  

To enlist the community’s support in helping us whenever we are suffering (and, not incidentally, to avoid antagonizing others through gossip and slander when we may need their help later!).   

To cultivate sympathy, helping others who are suffering, even if they don’t specifically request it.  

And … to pray to G-d.

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb