Parashat Tazria: From gossip to gratitude

Parashat Tazria: From gossip to gratitude

Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, Woodcliff Lake, Conservative

Pesach is coming. This week is Shabbat Hachodesh, the special Shabbat marking the new month of Nisan, the month of spring and liberation. We read selections from three Torah scrolls. From one we read the the regular Torah portion, Tazria, which includes the priestly laws regarding tzara’at, often translated (inaccurately) as “leprosy,” but which is actually scaly skin disease (psoriasis?). From the second we read the Shabbat Rosh Hodesh passage, Numbers 28:9-15. And from the third we read Exodus 12:1-20, the story of the first Pesach.

Let’s look at Tazria. A close reading of the portion, Leviticus chapters 12 and 13, reveals that the priestly writers did not provide a cause for tzara’at. The affliction comes without warning and no remedy is prescribed; the sufferer must simply wait outside the camp until the disease passes.

However, the ancient rabbis did say that tzara’at is punishment for sin, basing themselves on biblical texts like Deuteronomy 24:9. What is the sin? In particular, it is lashon hara, gossip and slander, proven by a play on words connecting the metzora, “leper,” to the motzi shem ra, one who speaks evil. What do the rabbinic doctors order? Social isolation, leading to repentance.

Clearly, the classical rabbis were not talking about scientific medicine. Rather, they were concerned with the ramifications of unethical speech — how people who hurt others are treated by society and how they may harm their own self-image and even their health.

In the Middle Ages, Maimonides held that the Torah removes the slanderer from the community to shield people “from the damages caused by the person’s words.” Isolation, then, is a protective measure, not retribution. The sinner is not dehumanized. (Think about this lesson. Doesn’t it seem that American society has largely stopped having compassion for people in prison, who like us are created in the image of God? They obviously don’t get much sympathy from politicians, juries, or prison officials.)

Maimonides elsewhere goes so far as to say that lashon hara is on a par with idolatry, adultery and murder. In his philosophical/theological view, evil speech is an extreme form of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, and separates the sinner from God.

But I want to offer a different take on our Torah portion. Lashon hara is no doubt a serious issue, but it is a mistake to view it in terms of a formulaic set of rules. The long list of ethical violations that Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan detailed in the 19th century (in the Sefer Chofetz Chayim, still a rabbinic bestseller) is too intimidating for most of us. While we have to be thoughtful about how we speak, not every form of lashon hara is negative, as the Chofetz Chayim himself recognized. Gossip can even be an ethical activity.

When someone in the congregation tells me that another congregant is having marital problems, should I not listen, and then reach out delicately to the couple to offer them support? When a female employee shares with another her frustration at being passed over for a much-deserved promotion, is it forbidden to talk about it in public, or might it help to bring the issue to light? Aren’t there times when we need to listen to criticism of our own actions (a possible form of lashon hara) without responding with anger?

Instead of fixating on lashon hara, it seems more valuable to meditate on the idea that tzara’at is a metaphor for exclusion and rehabilitation. Cancer, mental illness, the loss of a friend or family member, the realization that we have harmed others, are the sort of events that we need to acknowledge in all of their singular significance. People may stigmatize us, or we ourselves may push them away, but we need to be reminded that we don’t have to be alone. There is the potential in the world that we may be comforted and learn to comfort, be healed and learn to heal, be forgiven and learn to forgive.

Come to think of it, that is not a bad message for Pesach two weeks from now, when our seder tables can be places for spiritual intimacy, gratitude, empowerment and healing, rather than wounding, shame, and alienation. Shabbat shalom!

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