Underneath the surface, this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, is about the power of words.
On its surface, we cover a variety of topics relating to purity and impurity. Childbirth, scaly skin disease, plagues that erupt on clothing or houses, bodily discharges. All of these conditions have the potential to bear impurity.
Tzara’at is often, and misleadingly, translated as leprosy. Jacob Milgrom uses the term “scale disease, ” so that is how I will refer to it.
What are we dealing with? I have sometimes been guilty of referring to this as the Torah’s version of “public health.” There are many different forms that that tzaraat takes. It can appear on a person’s skin or scalp. It can be on clothing, fabric, or leather. Or, it can emerge on the walls of a building. The Torah describes the course of progression. There is a tremendous amount of detail.
But tzara’at does not resemble any skin affliction known to dermatology. What we are dealing with here is a spiritual condition, not a medical condition.
In chapters 13 and 14, the word tahor — pure — appears 36 times; tamei — impure — appears 30 times. The word for healing, nirpa, appears just 4 times.
Who performs the diagnosis – a wise person, a medicine man or woman, a prophet? No. It is the priests who are assigned this duty, the ones who are charged with maintaining separation between purity and impurity.
What is the remedy? The metzora must rend their clothes, bare their head, cover their upper lip, and call out “impure! impure!” as a warning to others to keep away. But we are not concerned with contagiousness of disease. We are worried about the contagiousness of impurity, which can be conveyed through touch or through being under the same roof.
Because the metzora has this status of impurity, they must dwell outside the community.
When the priest determines that the scale disease has run its course, he performs a ritual of purification on behalf of the Israelite who then must wait a week and bring sacrifices for expiation.
Tzara’at has little to do with medicine. The Torah’s treatment of it is ritual, not medical.
In the ancient world, death goes with impurity, life with purity.
In the Book of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother Moses on account of the Cushite woman that he has married. In response, God afflicts Miriam with “snow-white scales.” She become s a metzora’at.
Aaron turns to Moses. Pay close attention to how he describes what has happened. “O my Lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”
What have we learned about tzara’at?
1. It is the result of sin.
2. It makes Miriam look like a corpse, a stillbirth.
Moses intercedes with a prayer, but she still must remain outside of the camp for seven days during her period of ritual purification. There is nothing medical going on here. It is all about purity and impurity.
Our tradition must find religious meaning for these categories in a world in which there is no functioning priesthood. The Rabbis do not disappoint.
Already in the Torah, we found that tzara’at is associated with sin, impurity, and death.
The Rabbis run with that.
Noting that the word for a person afflicted with scale disease is called a metzora, they make a pun. Metzora is an acronym for the expression motzi shem ra, which means literally “bring out a bad name.” It is the Hebrew expression for gossip in all of its forms.
The case of Miriam and Aaron proves the point. What sin did they commit to merit Miriam’s punishment? They were speaking ill of Moses, specifically concerning the ethnicity of his wife.
So it is not such a stretch for the Rabbis to make the connection between gossip and tzara’at.
A Talmudic Sage asks why the metzora is required to dwell outside the camp. Why must they be ostracized from the community? The answer is that, through words, the metzora created separation between husband and wife, between neighbor and neighbor. And so, the punishment is to themselves be separated from the community.
The Rabbis have transformed what in the Bible was a spiritual matter into a moral lesson. The person who destroys community through their words is themself removed from the community. This could be seen as a punishment, or we might also see it as the natural consequence of speaking destructively.
The Torah begins with words. God speaks the universe into existence. From one day to the next, God declares, “Let there be light.” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water…” “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear…”
And then comes life. “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…” “Let the earth bring forth every kinds of living creature…” And finally, “Let us make humanity in our image…” Day after day, God creates through words.
What other kinds of words does God use in that opening week? “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it…”
The universe begins with words. Words bring life and blessing. This is the side of purity and good. The opposite, of course, is death and curse, the side of impurity and evil. This too can be the result of words.
The lesson of Tazria-Metzora is that our words have tremendous power. We can emulate God’s act of creation, using our words for good, for building one another up. For making the world better. For making life flourish. Or, when we use our words improperly, we destroy, we bring death. We separate ourselves from one another like the metzora banished to the edge of the camp.
The Rabbis point out that every act of lashon hara harms three people: the one who is spoken about, the one who is spoken to, and the one who does the speaking. The expulsion of the metzora from the camp is an appropriate metaphor for the potential of our words to destroy community.
Proverbs gets it exactly right when it states “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)
The corrosiveness of words is so evident and widespread in our world. I often feel powerless to avoid it. But if we remember the potential harm that words cause everyone involved, including ourselves, perhaps there is something we can do.
Before speaking, let’s ask, “Are the words that I am about to say more likely to build or to destroy? Will my speech promote peace or further division?” When listening, it is ok to say, “Can we discuss something else,” or “I prefer not to talk about someone who is not around.” Finally, and this is the hardest of all, take a break from the news, and stop checking the feed. It is not making the world any better, it is not bringing people together, and it certainly is not making your life any better.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Let’s make it life.
Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 47-51
Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824