This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33.
This week’s Torah portion describes a biblical skin disease called tzaraat. The Talmud says that this affliction, which does not exist today, was a physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment. Based on an episode in the Torah in which Miriam is afflicted with tzaraat for speaking badly about her brother Moses, the rabbis concluded that this disease comes primarily for the sin of lashon hara, slanderous speech.
The Jewish commentaries say that in Genesis when God breathes life into the first human being and it becomes a “living soul,” this is a reference to the human’s unique ability to speak. The story of the Exodus and development of the Jewish people, say the mystics, is the story of the spiritual repair of speech. After the Exodus the Jewish people must travel in the desert, the Hebrew word for which is midbar, a word that is related to the Hebrew word for speech, midaber. Moses, our greatest leader, suffered from an affliction of speech, he was “heavy of mouth and tongue.” But by the end of the trek through the desert, Moses becomes the person who speaks an entire book, the book of Divarim, which means words and opens with: “These are the words which Moses spoke.”
The Jewish people even at their inception were known for their ability to use words, as Isaac says to Jacob before he blesses him, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, though the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Speaking and communicating are essential to our lives, but like everything that is powerful it is a double-edged sword. Though freedom of speech and of the press helps to maintain democracy, according to this week’s parshah there are limits. Just because speech is legal does not mean it is moral, does not mean it is permitted from a Jewish point of view.
Even the first amendment has exceptions for defamation, theft and inciting violence, so where are the lines? How do we share enough information to retain democracy while still standing in respect before the power of the tongue and the lessons (and lesions) of our parshah?
When in doubt it, is best not to speak about others. Next time you are tempted to speak negatively about someone, think twice as to whether it is absolutely necessary in order to protect someone else from harm. If not, saying it is
forbidden. How many times do we speak about others just to feel better about ourselves? Just to feel solidarity with the listener? How often do we speak at great cost to another? The rabbis say that it is lashon hara which leads to baseless hatred among people, and it is this that ultimately holds back redemption and a better universe.
“Rabbi Hama ben Hanina said: What is the remedy for slanderers? If they be a scholar, then engage in the study of Torah, if they cannot let them become humble (Talmud Aruchin 15b).“ Holy speech and humility, says the Talmud, are the elixirs for bad speech and for the affliction of tzaraat.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner leads Kesher Israel in Georgetown.