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

The Song of the Well – Chukat 5773

This morning, we read the famous story of Moses hitting the rock. But there is another brief passage in this morning’s Torah portion that also deals with water bubbling up from the rocky desert ground.

Towards the end of the parshah, the Israelites set out again on their journey, marching ever closer to the Promised Land. From Kadesh to Mount Hor, where Aaron the High Priest dies. From Mount Hor, an unsuccessful attempt to enter Canaan form the South. They turn right and head off to the East. Ovot, Iye Abarim, Wadi Zered, the River Arnon. They pass by the borders of Edom, and Moab. They are now East of the Dead Sea, in what is the modern day country of Jordan. Then, to a place called Be’er, where God suddenly instructs Moses to gather the people together.

“Assemble the people that I may give them water,”*1* God declares. Something is a little strange. Twice already in this parshah alone, the Israelites have complained about not having water to drink. The first time led to the disaster with the staff and the rock, and Moses and Aaron getting banned from the land of Israel. The second time resulted in a plague of fiery serpents.

Now, all of a sudden, God is calling the people together for a water break without any whining. Why the sudden change?

According to the Spanish commentator Abarbanel, God said “I don’t want to hear their complaints.” God is tired of the whining, and has just given in.

Perhaps.  In any event, the assembled Israelites suddenly burst into song. Az yashir yisrael et-hashirah hazot. “Then Israel sang this song.” I’m sorry, I don’t know the melody.

Spring up, O well – sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug

which the nobles of the people started

with maces, with their own staffs.*2*

Then the Torah continues on with its story, describing the next stops in the Israelites’ journey.

This short episode is rather perplexing. According to the song, it does not seem to take a lot of effort to find these wells. The chieftains are digging them with a staff. One gets the impression that all they have to do is scratch the surface of the gravel a little bit, and water will come gushing forth.

But we know that water in the desert is no trifling thing. It is life and death. The book of Genesis contains stories of fighting over the rights to wells. Discovering a new well is momentous enough that the Torah goes out of its way to mention it. The discovery of a well is often considered to be miraculous. We know wells are important to the the Israelites, because they start complaining whenever they run out of water.

An Aramaic translation and commentary of the Torah expands on the obscure references in the song and fills in the gaps:

Then Israel sang this song of praise, when they settled and the well stayed, and when the when they moved on [so did the well] by the merit of Miriam: “Rise up, O well, rise up, O well!” They would sing and it would rise. This is the well of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Great of the ancient past dug it; the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, scribes of Israel, drew it out with their staffs.*3*

The song is not just a one time performance. For forty years, whenever Israel travels, the well travels with them. Some people are mentioned. It is on account of the merit of the Prophetess Miriam that the miraculous well stayed with them throughout their journeys. That is why, as soon as she dies in this morning’s parshah, the people are immediately without water.

But it is not only Miriam’s well. The well’s history extends back to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Then Moses and Aaron are brought in to the story. They, with their staves, are able to draw water out of the ground.

But this is not just about water. Two terms in this song are metaphors that further expand the meaning.

First is the well itself. Water is understood to be a metaphor for Torah.

The second term is m’chokek. The original meaning is staff, or scepter. But already in the Bible, m’chokek takes on an sense . M’chokek also means ruler, or lawgiver. In ancient artistic depictions, rulers often hold a staff in their hands. Think of the symbolism of Moses’ staff.

And so, applying these metaphors to the song of the well, we have the following message: the chieftain who uses his staff to bring water out of the ground to quench the people’s thirst is likened to the teacher who brings out the Torah to quench the people’s spiritual thirst.

It is not only Moses, Aaron, and Miriam who draw out the water of the Patriarchs for the people. It is true of every teacher of Torah. Whoever interprets the ancient teachings of our tradition and shares that knowledge with the world is like that chieftain who can use the staff to find water in the desert.

While we, thankfully, can get water simply by turning on the tap, we do find ourselves in a different kind of wilderness. We live in a world in which it is very easy to lose our direction. We live far apart from each other. Traditional communities have broken down. We spend less time in face to face conversations and more time in front of screens. And we consume, consume, consume. Despite all of that consumption, I fear that many of us today are thirsty, whether we know it or not.

As Jews, it is the living waters of Torah that sustains us, that enables us to draw on the ancient wisdom of our tradition – a tradition that extends all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, that nourished Miriam, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites in the wilderness, and that continues to nourish us to this day. Maybe, like the Israelites, we should sing about it more.

 

*1*Numbers 21:16

*2*Numbers 21:17-18

*3*Targum Pseudo-Yonatan