Death and life are in the power of the tongue – Tazria-Metzora 5781

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 47-51

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

Words Matter: On the Attack Against the US Capitol – January 9, 2021

Before the election last November, I asked our members to refrain from making political comments in certain synagogue contexts in the interest of maintaining our community as one in which Jews of differing political persuasions could all find a home. I commend us for doing a pretty good job of that.

And so I have been struggling with how to respond to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob whose stated goal was to violently prevent our elected representatives from performing their sacred constitutional duty.

What I realized is that what happened on Wednesday was not politics. It was rebellion and anarchy: the rejection of politics. It was an assault on democracy and decency, a denial of everything America stands for.

Not since 1814 has something like this happened, and that was during a war against another sovereign nation. Ever since John Adams quietly conceded to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a humiliating electoral defeat, the United States has never failed to have a peaceful transfer of power from one President to his successor. For centuries, the American example has been a model for younger democratic nations, and an inspiration to individuals living under authoritarian regimes who dreamed of freedom and democracy.

What that mob did on Wednesday undermined all of that. It was the opposite of politics.

If you are like me, you have spent the last several days poring over analysis and commentary. I do not want to repeat what you can read elsewhere by those who are more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.

I always try to remember that I am a Rabbi. You have heard me say this many times before. My authority to speak from this pulpit (right now it is a metaphorical pulpit) is derived from our Jewish tradition.

So how might our tradition speak to the violence that was perpertrated this week?

First of all, there is a long-standing concept in Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina – The law of the land is the law. Whenever we have been subjects of a government that is governed by laws, we follow those laws.  When our Israelite ancestors were sent into exile in Babylonia, the Prophet Jeremiah said: “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  Ever since, Jews have included prayers for God to bless the government and its advisors. This was true in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Rome, in Czarist Russia, and most especially in the United States.

America’s republican system of representative democracy is the best protection of minority rights that the Jewish people have ever known. As Jews of all political persuasions, we should be deeply offended by scenes of rioters openly wearing Holocaust-denying clothing, flashing white power signs, erecting a noose outside the Capitol Building and parading the Confederate Flag through the halls of Congress.

I have also been thinking a lot about language and leadership. Ours is a tradition of words. Our method of study involves ultra fine parsing of our sacred texts. The ideal model for learning is the chavruta: two partners, friends, arguing with their own words over the meaning of someone else’s words.

We have categories of mitzvot that specifically focus on the words that we use, specifically on the how the words that come out of our mouths have the potential to harm.

The most well known of these categories is lashon hara – “the evil tongue.” This is the term that refers to gossip and tale-bearing. It is when a person spreads information about another person that, although true, causes harm. A related term is motzi shem ra – “to bring out an evil name.” This applies to defamation or slander: the spreading of harmful lies.

The midrash compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy in the hopes that the attacker will change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Another midrash makes a further comparison.  “Lashon hara that is spoken in Rome can kill in Syria.”  (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

When a person in authority uses their words to incite followers to violence, this figurative statement becomes literal.

Another category of Jewish law that focuses on words is geneivat daat – stealing the mind.  It applies to many different kinds of interpersonal interactions.  Genevat Da’at is using one’s words to deceive or manipulate another person.  Genevat Daat occurs whether or not the information is true, if its purpose is to create a false impression or exploit another person in some way. According to one midrash, stealing a person’s mind in this way, because it is “more personal and direct,” is an even more heinous offense than stealing something physical.

Judaism teaches that leaders have enormous responsibility. Their personal behavior as role models, the way that they comport themselves in public, and the words they use to their followers, have the power to create or destroy. The words that leaders utter matter even more than they do for the common person.

When a person in a position of power uses his words to incite a mob to violence, that person has betrayed the trust that has been placed in him.

Former President George Bush pointed it out clearly in his written statement on Wednesday. He wrote: 

I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.

Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capitol

While members of Congress huddled in secure safe rooms, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation. One line stood out to me in which he articulated the particular responsibility bestowed upon the President of the United States. He said: 

The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.

Remarks to the Nation by President-Elect Joe Biden

All of the institutions of the Conservative movement came together to issue a joint statement this week. I would like to conclude by reading its ending. 

The basis for democracy stems from the Torah’s belief that every person is created equally in God’s image and is therefore entitled to equal representation in government and equal protection under the law. Each week we pray during our Shabbat worship to “uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many people and faiths who dwell in our nation.” This prayer is more than an expression of faith. It is a call to action, and we have much work to do to heal the deep wounds and divisions which afflict the United States and society.

May the new US leaders, who are coming to power this month at every level of government, rise to the responsibility the voters have entrusted to them to bring healing and exercise responsible governance.

Statement on the Attack on the United States Capitol by Organizations of the Conservative Movement of Judaism

Amen