Parashat Tazria

The Leprosy Of Irresponsible Speech

Learning tocontrol our speech will enable us to transform the world into a community thatrespects the shared humanity of all people.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

With this week’s Torah portion, we learn a great deal about the ritual function of the kohanim (priests) in helping people cope with infectious illness. Particularly the illness of 'tzara'at,' leprosy, becomes the focus of sustained attention, presumably because it was quite common in the ancient Near East.

Basing themselves on a story found in the Book of Numbers, the Rabbis of the Midrash viewed leprosy as an external sign of an internal decay. Illness became a symbol for corruption, immorality and callousness.

The link between illness and a lack of ethics arises from the story of Miriam's criticism of Moses' wife for being a Cushite. Clearly, Miriam uses her sister-in-law's ethnicity as a pretext for attacking her brother. Whereas Jewish tradition goes so far in rejecting racism that the Rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud justify Moses' selection of an African woman as his wife, Miriam is unable to restrain her harmful comments and her corrosive bigotry.

In a condemnation that neatly parallels Miriam's criticism that Moses' wife is too black, Miriam is stricken with an illness that leaves her skin a flaky white. Since her 'tzara'at' resulted from her critical words, the Rabbis naturally associated the two.

Thus, the biblical laws on infectious disease became an extended metaphor for self-centeredness, critical or slanderous speech, and hateful deeds.

Things God Hates

Midrash Vayikra understands the law of leprosy as an allusion to seven traits the Lord hates: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet that run eagerly toward evil, a false witness and one who sows discord among people. How many of these violations pertain to an irresponsible use of language!

Speaking and thinking ill of another person, construing their actions in the worst possible way, gossiping and spreading rumors which harm the reputation of another person--these activities are so widespread among our contemporaries that they no longer attract our notice at all. Yet they strike at the core of the kind of world Judaism is trying to establish. Those practices provoke a cynical disregard of human decency; they cultivate our suspicion of each other and our assumption that others are speaking ill of us behind our backs just as we are of them.

In Hebrew, such speech is called 'lashon hara' (literally, "an evil tongue"). 'Lashon hara' is the practice of speaking about other people, rather than speaking to them. It involves transforming a living, complex human being into a caricature--an object of evil, or sloth, or competition. In speaking ill of others, we participate in their dehumanization, initiating a process whose end is uncontainable.

Like An Arrow

In the words of the Rabbis, "A loose tongue is like an arrow. Once it is shot, there is no holding it back." The Midrash notes that five times, the word "Torah," teaching, is used to refer to 'tzara'at.' From this superfluous repetition, the sages derive that "one who utters evil reports is considered in violation of the entire five books of the Torah."

A marvelous tale is told of a wandering merchant who came into a town square, offering to sell the elixir of life. Of course, large crowds would surround him, each person eager to purchase eternal youth. When pressed, the merchant would bring out the Book of Psalms, and show them the verse "Who desires life? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from guile."

In an age awash in corrosive mistrust, a lack of confidence in our public leaders, and an alienating sense of loneliness and isolation, there is little hope of establishing real community until we learn to speak a new language--one of responsibility, kindness and compassion.

Rather than spreading rumors to make others look bad, we can devise empathic explanations for why someone might have acted in a disappointing way. Rather than repeating a racist joke, we can focus attention on the shared humanity of all people. Rather than speaking about other people, we can speak to them, out of love and a desire to live in a shared community together.

By learning to channel and control our speech, we will transform our world from one of isolation and cynicism to one of community and trust. Isn't that what the rule of God is all about?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.