Torah Tuesdays: Moses, Skin Diseases, and Unethical Speech

April 2, 2014

This week we leapfrog from where we were in Exodus to catch up with where our people Israel have been reading in their synagogues. That brings us to Parshat Metzorah, Leviticus 14:1-15:33.

When it comes to learning from Moses our Mentor, and finding "Lessons in Living from Israel's Great Teacher," we should remember that this learning is mediated to us through a community and through the Sages of that community. In other words, we pause to consider not only what Moses our Mentor taught us, but also how the Sages of Israel interpreted what he was teaching. We at Interfaithfulness don't stand outside of time, nor do we stand apart from our people. We are instructed by their learning, and by their teaching.

So we come this week to consider Parashat Metzorah, a passage from Leviticus dealing with people suffering from loathesome and apparent skin disease, often associated with leprosy, but certainly not limited to that affliction. The affliction is called tsara'at and the person so afflicted is called a metzorah. What can we learn for our own lives from such considerations?

images-1The Sages of Israel derived penetrating moral lessons from this affliction, its detection, and treatment. They saw it as a punishment for slander, based in part upon the punishment of being smitten with leprosy or a skin disease meted out to Miriam, Moses’s sister, when she spoke ill of him.  In addition, the Rabbis saw the word for such a sufferer, metzorah, as an acronym for motzi shem ra, one who brings forth a bad name, that is, a slanderer.  Our Sages drew many moral lessons from the details concerning the leper, his disease, his conduct, his treatment, inspection, etc. 

For example, the Rabbis taught that the quarantining and isolation of the leper was really a picture of the quarantining and isolating of the slanderer.  This was meant to be a corrective measure whereby the he or she would experience the isolation from society experienced by the person they slandered.  When you slander a person and ruin their reputation, you create a barrier between them and their family, friends and society.  The same is true for the leper whose disease separates him from family, friends, and society.

Although we could argue with the interpretive principles used here, there is no arguing that slander, lashon hora, is a deadly, persistent plague.  Like any plague, there is only one way to prevent its transmission, and that it to exercise constant vigilance and meticulous verbal hygiene.  One thing is certain: without such constant vigilance and care, the disease is sure to spread, because it is so very infectious, and the damage it does is most severe.

Not all wounding words are bad. The proverb reminds us “Blessed are the wounds of a friend, but cursed are the kisses of an enemy,” reminding us that one of the characteristics of a true friend is her willingness to tell us what we do might not want to hear, but need to hear anyway.  Similarly, not all negative words spoken to third parties are wrong.  When we must speak negative words in order to protect someone from the prospect of being harmed by the person under discussion, then it is our responsibility to say something.  Yet, our tradition does come down very hard indeed on certain kinds of wounding words.  The kinds of wounding words which our tradition especially decries are those damaging words which are spoken about a person either to others or in the presence of others.

Our tradition says that the slanderer would be afflicted with leprosy and become an outcast so that he might himself experience the misery he had caused others, and might repent.  Clearly, our Sages took this kind of sin most seriously. Shouldn’t we do the same?

On the other side of the equation, there is a positive motivation for exercising verbal hygiene.  The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yannai who encountered a peddler walking through town and hawking his wares”Who wants to buy the elixir of life?”  The rabbi and his disciples aproached the peddler and asked him to reveal his secret potion.  The peddler refused at first, but finally relented: “You do not need any special potions.  The key to a long, happy life is contained in your holy books, which state, ‘Who is the man who desires long life? . . . guard your tongue from evil.”  The rabbi realized he was right: that if one keeps away from speaking ill of others and from animosity and arguments, he has a better chance of a calmer, more peaceful and longer life.

This kind of hygiene calls for constant vigilance and frequent washing.  Hospitals worry about what are termed nonsocomial infections, which are indigenous to the hospital environment, indeed, many patients die due to infections they caught in the hospital!  Statistics suggest that 40 percent of such infections are due to lapses in hand-washing disciplines. And yes, this is a matter of life and death. Hospital workers and all who visit there need to wash their hands repeatedly both before and after a long lists of different kinds of events. This is not about "dirt." Such workers must wash not because their hands appear dirty, but because those hands are so easily contaminated, and therefore can so easily infect patients. None of us would want to be served by doctor who said, “I already washed my hands today.”  When he works with us, when someone touches one of our wounds, we want to know that they washed just before they did so. . .that they practiced good hygiene.  Otherwise we would have good reason to expect that they would spread infection when they touched us.

Similarly, we need to constantly and repeatedly practice verbal hygiene if we are to avoid spreading the disease of slander and of evil speaking.  It is not enough to have washed your hands this morning or yesterday.  What about now? What are some ways we might do this?

  1. Just as the leper had to go to the priest so that the priest might examine him to see if his disease was still infectious or had passed, so we all need spiritual directors or advisors, people with excellent discernment and experience who can examine us and tell us if our ways of speaking of others are toxic or not.  It would not be a bad idea to ask such a friend from time to time, “Do you see me exercising proper care in my speech about others, or do I need to clean up my act?’
  2. If what I am saying seems to make sense to you, make it a practice to “wash” your speech by keeping certain holy ideas and phrases constantly on your lips, your mind and your heart.  One which comes to mind is “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O L-rd, my Rock and My Redeemer.[Psalm 19]”   Another would be, “Post a sentry for my mouth, O Hashem;  set a guard over the door of my lips. [Psalm 141]”
  3. Realize that we tend to practice the hygienic practices of those around us. Just as a person who lives in an ultra clean house is more likely to develop orderly habits of life, so a person who associates with people who are circumspect in their speech is most likely to himself develop the same habits  On the other hand, a person who hangs out with those who are careless in what they say about others will pick up the disease:  without a doubt.
  4. When you have brought infection to someone, it is your responsibility to do what you can to clean out the infected wound. This is done through confession: “I am sorry about what I said about you last week to so and so, and how this has brought you so much pain.   Is there anything I can do to make this up to you? Please forgive me.”  You should practice such confessional washing of the person you slandered and also of others you spoke to, for by involving them in your slander, you did them harm as well.  And of course, you should confess your sin to G-d, that He might wash you clean in His sight.
  5. In our congregations, one of the best things people can do is to begin to develop a verbally hygienic climate.  When someone speaks critically of someone else to you, how should you respond? You should gently correct them and refuse to hear any more of the slanderous gossip, criticism, or complaining they have in store.  In fact, our tradition tells us that the slanderer kills three people: herself, the person she slanders, and the one who listens to the slander. This is based on the passage in Leviticus which says “Do not go about as a tale-bearer among your people and do not stand idly by your brothers blood." Our rabbis suggest the connection here is that when we stand by while someone is being slandered, we become witnesses and accomplises to social murder--our brother's or sister'sblood poured out on the ground.  So don’t allow someone else’s reputation to be killed in your presence . Don’t let someone kill themselves spiritually by allowing them to commit slander in your presence.  And don’t mortally wound yourself by aiming slanderous words aimed at someone else.

We need to be honest with ourselves.  This kind of vigilance is hard and wearing.  We are just not used to it.  And it may seem excessive. In this, I am reminded of the little child who resents having to wash his hands before every meal.  He doesn’t understand germ theory.  He doesn’t understand why washing his hands is so important.  He doesn’t understand the danger that unclean hands can bring.

Similarly, we need to be educated by G-d concerning the dangers of wrong speech.  Like the little kid, we don’t see what the big deal is.  But we need to learn this lesson well—not the lesson of washing our hands, but the lesson of washing our speech.  

Bad hygiene is serious business: lashon hora kills.


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