By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant In last week’s Torah Parsha (BEHAALOTECHA), we read about the Israelite’s turbulent saga of disillusionment, with their way of life in the desert. This...
The essence of this week’s Torah Parsha (METZORA) pertains to ritual impurities. There are references to spiritual impurities within a home (detected by the appearance of dark colored patches on its walls); and, impurities engendered by nature of intimate relations between a husband and his wife. However, the predominant theme of Parsha (METZORA) concerns the gravity and consequences for engaging in ‘lashon hara’: evil speech, gossip, or slander about another person.
Any individual, known to have participated in such activities would suffer a skin condition (TZARAAT), with symptoms analogous to those of leprosy. This person would be banished from the community; forced to endure numerous cleansing rituals; and, to remain outside of his or her house for ten days (1). According to Rashi, the individual who committed the sin of ‘lashon hara’ was required to bring “two live birds as offerings to the entrance of the Sanctuary, because birds continually chatter and chirp” (2) – – a metaphor for idle talk or gossip.
Despite the fact that ‘lashon hara’ is not singled out in the Torah, as a prohibition in its own right, our sages regarded it as one of the worst of all sins – – as evil as the three cardinal sins – – idolatry, murder, and incest- – combined (3). We may be inclined to read Parsha (METZORA), and the words of our sages, with a sense of bewilderment. It may seem logical to question whether the stigma and shame of skin discoloration and ostracism from the community, is too severe a punishment merely for an utterance to a friend, regarding a third person.
To understand the sense of the magnitude of this sin, is the awareness that Judaism is less a religion of holy people and holy places, than it is a religion of ‘words’. Words can be creative; but, also destructive. Gossip sows the seeds of distrust and envy. The Psalmists compare slanderous talk to “sharp arrows of a warrior” (4).
The biblical authors were incapable of even speculation, as to how every aspect of life, in every part of the world would be completely transformed over thousands of years. Yet, they did have the wisdom to understand that the basic nature of mankind was not likely to alter. In every society, there are individuals, who thrive on disparaging other people; gratuitously discussing their faults; simply, for the ‘pleasure’ involved in such actions. The victims of these ‘casual conversations’ are susceptible to serious harm: broken families or relationships; negative effects on their careers; loss of friends; erosion of self-esteem; and, a host of psychological or physical maladies.
Our sages tell us: “Do not judge another until you reach his or her place” (5). At the end of the prayers we say at every ‘Amidah’ are the words: “We pray to God to help us close our lips, so that we do not speak badly about others, nor react when others speak badly about us” (6).
Judaism has zero tolerance for someone, who even hints at another’s shortcomings…..As Jews, it is incumbent upon us to embrace the symbolism of Parsha (METZORA), lest we be labeled as one who has committed the sin of ‘lashon hara’.
(1) LEVITICUS (14:7-14:12)
(2) Rashi: “On Leviticus”
(3) Mishna (12:5)
(4) Psalm (120:4)
(5) Avot 2:5
(6) MyJewishLearning,com (Amidah)