You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Metzora.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK
It is appropriate that our parshah, METZORA, with its deep lessons about the purity of speech, is always read shortly before or after the festival of Pesach, whose name signifies, “The mouth speaks”. Sefer Yetzirah teaches that the human faculty associated with the month of Nissan is speech. The Seder night, climax of so many arduous preparations, is an exercise in speech: HAGGADAH, “telling”. The story we tell — the story of our people and of our own inner self — is at the furthest remove from self-aggrandizement. The story starts with shame, tracing our descent into the depths of degradation, pain and anguish before our miraculous delivery from Egypt. For this, we glory not in ourselves but only in the Holy One, turning our night of “telling” into one of song and praise to G-d.
During most of the recital of the Haggadah, the MATZAH — the “Bread of Humility” — lies exposed before our eyes. This is to impress upon us that we must take a humble view of ourselves and our place in G-d’s great scheme, for this the key to using our faculty of speech, man’s defining faculty — in holiness and purity. “Not for our sake, O G-d, not for our sake but for Your Name’s sake give glory.!”
Speech is truly a double-edged weapon, a “tree of good and evil” the “taste” of which is literally in our mouths. Words can do so much good — to shine the truth, to encourage, build and strengthen those with whom we live and work… But words can also be used for so much evil — to deceive, to confuse, to hurt, denigrate and destroy. It is when we are puffed up with CHAMETZ, the “leaven” of our own self-importance and rectitude that we are liable to use words aggressively, angrily, without sensitivity. But when we remove the CHAMETZ of self-importance from our hearts in the knowledge that we are G-d’s creation — no more and no less than everyone else — we can learn to use our amazing faculty of speech with wisdom and love. Then we can join G-d as partners in the work of creation and the revelation of His truth. Words literally rule over our lives. Can we rule over the words that leave our mouths? Will we rule with arrogance or with humility?
The METZORA, literally the “leper”, is symbolic of one who abuses his power of speech, being MOTZI-RA: “bringing out evil”. The previous parshah, TAZRIA, presented an elaborate pathology of the diseases of the soul, such as the “leprous” mark of SE-EIS, inflated pride, or BAHERES, the shining white light in which some people constantly seek to present themselves. The first step in the cure for such illnesses of the soul is to receive an objective “diagnosis” from the Kohen-Priest, a clear statement that the mark is TA-ME, impure. Until we name our negative traits correctly, we cannot begin to heal them. Only when we acknowledge the impure for what it is can we take the first step towards purification. As we saw in last week’s parshah, healing of the wounds of the soul requires heart-searching and contrition, which is why the METZORA was sent for a period of into isolation “outside the camp”.
Reb Sholom Brodt
The Rabbis in the Talmud teach that the affliction of ‘tzara’at’ would come about because of the transgression of speaking lashon-harah, evil talk about another and because ‘spilling innocent blood’ [murder, embarrassing someone in public, taking your anger out on someone]. Relish Larkish says, “Read the word “Metzora” as “matzo-rah”, bringing out evil talk. [Eyrechin 15b.]
A person who spoke lashon-harah would first be afflicted with ‘tzara’at’ on the walls of his house. If he learned his lesson from this then it would stop there. But if not, then the ‘tzara’at would move to his garments, and if he continued to speak lashon-harah, then it would move to his body. The consequence of being in this state of ‘tummah’ was most severe in that the “Metzora” had to remain isolated outside all three camps, as it says “Ba-dadd yeishev mi-chutz la-machaneh,” he must stay isolated outside all [three] camps; he was not even allowed to associate with other people who were tamei, until he returned to being “tahor”.
It is very interesting and very unusual that the Torah devotes two very large chapters to this topic, a total of 116 verses [out of a total of 859 verses in ‘sefer Vayikra’ the book of Leviticus]. The Netivot Shalom takes this as an indication that the transgression of ‘lashon harah’, speaking with an evil tongue, is much deeper than any other transgression that involves a prohibited physical ‘action’ only.
Making a firm resolution not to do them anymore can end transgressions that involve physical acts. But transgressions that emanate from ‘middot ra’ot’ – bad character traits, and involve our ‘hirhurim’ – thoughts, can only be corrected by uprooting the ‘evil root’ that they emanate from. Even if one manages to be completely ‘self-disciplined’ such that he does not transgress in any way, nevertheless, as long as he has not yet uprooted the evil within, he has yet to accomplish his purpose in being here. So says Reb Mendele Vitebsker in his sefer “Pri Ha’aretz”.
The Zohar classifies all creation into four levels of creation, each one being higher than the other. These are: 1. “Domeim” – the inanimate creations, such as rocks etc. 2. “Tzomeyach” – that which grows, such as plants and vegetation. 3. “Chai” – that which is alive, animals etc. 4. “Medabeyr” – the one who speaks. We are classified as the “medabeyr” in the creation schema. On the verse “and He breathed into his nostrils the ‘nishmat chayim’, a breath of life”, the Targum Onkelos translates as “ruach memallelah”, a spirit that speaks. The highest expression of our essence lies in our speech.
Speaking ‘lashon harah’ is therefore very different from other transgressions; when speaking lashon harah we are transgressing with our most essential characteristic. To call our attention to this, the Torah places much emphasis on this transgression by devoting a large amount of text to its consequences.
“Cedar wood… and hyssop” (14:4)
Because he has exalted himself like a cedar tree… he should humble himself like a blade of grass.
If the point is that he should show humility, why does he bring both a cedar and hyssop? But the true meaning of humility is not to be broken and bowed, but to be humble even as one stands straight and tall.
(The Chassidic Masters)
A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying (Sanhedrin 37a), “A person is commanded to declare: For my sake the world was created.” In his second pocket he should keep the verse (Genesis 18:17), “I am but dust and ashes.”
(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Tazria / Metzora
(She Will Bear Seed)
LEVITICUS 12:1 – 13:59
LEVITICUS 14:1 – 15:33
This portion details the laws concerning purification after childbirth and the
laws concerning Tzara’at. It goes on to describe just how the one who has been
healed must be welcomed back to the community.
THESE CHAPTERS ARE CONCERNED with the delicate times when one’s condition necessitates a period of separation from communal life. How does that separation happen and how is that person later re-integrated into the community?
Tazria begins by discussing the condition of a woman immediately after childbirth. She is blessed with a time of separation and then given a path for returning. I understand this condition not only in the context of childbirth, but in regards to the creative process. During a time of intense creative output, as with childbirth, a person steps outside the boundaries of time and space. She touches the realm between the worlds where ayin (“nothing”) gives birth to yesh (“existence”).
In that place between worlds she is completely taken up by the process of birth. The artist lives inside the poem, painting, or song, and the rest of the world, for a time falls away. The blessing of Tazria is in knowing that there will again be a way of returning to the community, to normal life. The time of alienation, which is necessary for the creative process to unfold, is also finite. The artist may return and bring with her the riches that she has mined and be re-integrated, welcomed back, and appreciated by her community.
DURING THE PROCESS of re-entry, the mother, or artist, brings two offerings, a Chatat and an Olah.
The Chatat is the offering that celebrates the purification from unintentional sin. If during my time of separation and focused creativity I have by necessity neglected other parts of life, I can be cleansed of guilt and blame, and with the offering of the Chatat be re-connected with the life of the community.
The Olah, the burnt offering, is completely consumed by fire, completely given. After creating something wonderful and being consumed by that process there is a danger of identifying your ego with your creation. When that creation is praised you may become inflated; when it is criticized you may become defensive. The offering of the Olah is a way of completely giving your creation to God, to the wholeness of the cosmos.
THERE ARE MANY TIMES in life when it may be necessary to seclude oneself for a time. Tzara’at, which is usually translated as “leprosy,” can be understood as a difficult inner psycho-spiritual passage that manifests as a disturbance on the surface. Someone with this condition needs to separate himself from the community for a time in order to pay close attention to those inner changes, which are the causes of the outer confusion. At a time of inner growth, it might feel like your life has become too small. There is a chafing or an irritability, and it is time to ‘leave the camp.’ It is time to go on a retreat.
The blessing of Metzora comes to us as the force of re-integration, symbolized by the priest, as it reaches out to you in your place of alienation, recognizes your transformation and brings you back to the community. In the ritual of re-entry, two birds are brought. One is killed, to symbolize the old self that has died; and one is set free in the open country to express the re-born self flying free into an expanded life.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
OFTEN, A PERSON’S GROWTH happens on the inside before it manifests in the outer world. The spiritual challenge lies in navigating this awkward time of dissonance between inner and outer. During this time the two realities must be reconciled. It is an uncomfortable time because there is a tendency to resist change and that resistance can manifest in the physical body. Retreat time is required in order to attend to and integrate the inner changes.
The spiritual challenge of Tazria/Metzora is to know when to separate yourself from the community and to know how to return.
The separation depends on having a community/relationship/family who honor and trust the process. This means that they understand the process of retreat as necessary and valuable to the life of the community.
WHEN SOMEONE ‘leaves the camp’ to do the inner work that is calling them, they will be fully available upon their return and will have an integrated wholeness to give back to the community.
The process of retreat requires paying attention to the subtle messages of the soul in an atmosphere of spaciousness, without the everyday distractions and demands of the outer life. For some it may seem selfish to take this time for yourself, but it really is a requirement in the life of service.
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Jonathan Case
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Metzora: Life’s Pain
The episode in Torah portion this week commences with a disease called metzora. While the exact english name of the disease is not clear, metzora was a consuming whitish skin lesion that was likely contagious. The kohen, as judge, determined whether the disease was the dreaded metzora or not.
“…he shall be brought to the Kohen. Then the Kohen will go out….”
So what was the truth? There is a contradiction here: Did the kohen go out to the metzora? Or did the metzora go out to the kohen? What actually happened?
The general consensus of the Sages is that the metzora went to kohen. Why would they say that the metzora goes out to kohen? Because, they said, the afflicted must accept their condition before they can reach out for help. There are times when the loneliness of sitting in pain becomes so unbearable that all we want to do is sit and cry. All strength leaves us, it seems to just evaporate out of our pores, so that we remain alone, shivering, frightened, and feeling totally helpless.
There are other times when we just ignore the toothache, pretend that there is no lump or go on using the aching leg. It is critical to reach out your heart toward those who can offer help. We need someone to sit and hold our hand and take away the awful isolation. Help will only come when we venture out and seek it.
A simple example is when we are ill we need to see a doctor. We require assistance to get through the malaise. In our more complex universe, far more ailments cannot be assuaged by a paid professional. An operation or a prescription for drugs may not be the cure for what pains us. Those are the times we need to be strong enough to reach out beyond our ego and call for comfort. That is why the Sages tell us that when we are hurting we need to reach for help, not withdraw into a pitiful state of separation and perhaps ultimately self-loathing.
We have a family to support us. We form communities so that we will not have to endure the pain alone.
But it is the responsibility of the community not to wait for that to happen. For this reason, the kohen also needs to go out to the metzora.
Talmud teaches that the “metzora needs healing.” 1 Is this true? Is this what the Torah reading is about? Healing the afflicted? Does the kohen facilitate healing? Is he doctor as well as priest?
It does not appear that the kohen effects healing at all. All he does is assess the afflicted one. The kohen ventures out to examine the metzora and determines whether this is an abrasion, a scar or the disease. If he finds them to be contaminated, the metzora is then exiled to outside the community. Rabbi Harold Kushner has taught that the healing to which the Talmud alludes is about the kohen making the time to physically go out and visit the afflicted himself. Such an act makes the one who has the lesions feel like they are important enough to be visited by Aaron and his progeny. That the head of the religious community goes out himself facilitates healing.
Idea: Maybe when we call someone who is sick we are performing a greater symbolic task than we even know.
Even a kohen can become metzora. What happens then? The kohen must go to another kohen. Is that difficult? Is it hard to admit to our weaknesses?
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a great nineteenth century moralist, made a powerful observation: A person has one eye weaker than the other. The weaker eye sees the faults in others, whereas the stronger eye sees your own faults.
It requires no special gift to be critical of others. For far too many people criticism comes easily. To be self-reflective, though, takes strength of character. Never let pride stand in way of wholeness, reaching out for healing, said Salanter.
“Life and death come from the mouth,” states the Talmud. In fact, the metzora disease is believed to come as a Divine punishment for engaging in slander. The action of a penitent soul would be to bring two birds to God once they have realized their sin.
One of the sacrificial birds was released while the other offered on the altar. Why was a bird brought and not another kind of animal, say, a lamb? Because a bird does not stop singing. Its voice continues to flow out its throat. In much the same way, the words uttered by the metzora flowed unceasingly. They never stopped to think about the damage they were doing or the sin they were committing.
The Sages also ask why one bird was killed and the other released. Midrash Lekach Tov provides an insight. The midrash declares that there are two kinds of speech. One kind of speech is when we bring good things to the world by monitoring what we say and thinking before speaking. The other is when we can bring destruction into the world by reckless, thoughtless words. One bird needs to die just as the evil thoughts expressed need to be to be extirpated. That does not mean though that we are to keep silent, never saying a word, for fear of saying something bad. Words can also bring great harmony. Just as one of the birds goes free so too when we offer healing and goodness our words fly and generate.
1 Megilla 8B
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Metzorah
Rav DovBer Pinson
Relinquishing Control & Taking Responsibility
The Torah reading this week begins with the words “And Hashem spoke to Moshe…This shall be the law of the person afflicted with Tzara’as, on the day of his cleansing, he shall be brought to the Kohen/ Priest.” (14:1-2)
Tzara’as is a spiritual affliction that manifests as a skin pigmentation. A person who has Tzara’as is considered to be impure. This has nothing to do with physical hygiene, rather impurity is a spiritual condition.
The skin of the ‘metzora’ – the person afflicted by Tzara’as turns white — white symbolizing absence of life, or death. Impurity is a state that is connected with anything that is death related, whether actual death or figurative death, such as stagnancy, lack of movement, and loss of hope. Conversely, purity is defined as everything that is connected with life, growth and hope.
The Torah describes the purification process for the Metzorah “Then the Kohen shall give the order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds…and one shall slaughter the one bird over spring water…. He shall then send away the live bird into the [open] field.” (14: 4-7)
This verse describes the healing process from impurity. Even without an actual kohen and Temple, this process needs to occur within our own lives as we move into new realities.
The ritual of the two birds is representative of that which brings us to a state of ‘Tuma’, or impurity, in the first place. The key to remaining balanced and living in a state of growth and joy, is understanding that there are some things we can control in life, and others that are beyond our control.
When a person tries to control everything, and finds that things occur that are beyond his control, he will give up on everything, leading to a state of depression and loss of hope, this is a place of ‘tumah.’
However, when we recognize that certain ‘keys of life’ are given to us and some things are entirely out of our hands, such as life (birth, conception etc,..) and death, we can come to a place of faith, optimism – life and hope.
The two birds are given different fates. One is sent free and the other is offered. The two birds represent an “end” and a “beginning.” One’s life comes to an end, and another’s life in freedom begins. This is how beginnings are – there is a death on one end when there is a birth on the other.
But to fully integrate this, we need to recognize as well, the things that are within our control and those things that are not. And this is also represented by the two birds. One bird we hold onto, we can control and offer it up – thus elevating it. The other bird we must let go of. This bird represents that which is beyond our control, (though, how we respond to these events is in our control), those elements which we must infuse with hope and faith, and recognize that we are ultimately not able to control.
The Week’s Energy
Relinquishing Control & Taking Responsibility
Last week’s Torah reading was that of closing door, and marking an ending. This week we are focused on newness and beginnings. To properly enter into new realities, we must not only let go of the old that is holding us back, we must also release that which is beyond our control. We need to understand what we can decide, and make happen in our new reality, and also open ourselves to faith and hope for those elements that are beyond our control.
This week’s energy is that of purity, clarity. We need to heal from our impurities, our despair, that stems from our false sense of control. We do this by letting go of that which we have no control over, and moving those elements into a place of faith and hope, while recognizing that the things we have control over must be elevate by making the right choices as we enter a new reality.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
O holy Shabbes Metzora
We refer to Metzora
sometimes translated as someone with leprosy
always indicating some sort of physical sign
of spiritual condition
we refer to the portion Metzora
purified or cleansed
though a Metzora itself
we call this language
lashon sagi nahor
the language that is full of light —
by full of light we are referring
to a way of describing certain conditions
full of light
we use for blindness,
we call the cemetery
house of life,
lashon sagi nahor
the language full of light —
all language I have found
is full of light
so what do we signify
with this description?
The nature of reality to be and not be
a certain way
Metzora is pure
something may be precisely what it seems not to be
not to be precisely what it is
or the circle of meaning
when description on the continuum of the circle
meets each other
one version entering from the east
another from the west
where they meet
lashon sagi nahor —
full of light we are
when we realize
the road we thought was straight
Maqam Sigah [tri-chord]
E half-flat F G
Every portion has a characteristic maqam (plural maqamat),
musical figure, from the Arabic, cognate in Hebrew Maqom
From Melissa Carpenter
Metzora: Disease in the Walls
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a blemish of skin-disease (tzara-at) in a house (bayit) on your property, the one who has the house will come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a blemish has become visible to me in the house. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
And the priest will give an order, and they will clear the house before the priest comes to look at the blemish, so all the things in the house will not become ritually impure. After that the priest will come to look at the house. And he will see the blemish, and hey! The blemish in the walls of the house is depressed, livid green or blood red, and it appears to be below the surface of the wall. Then the priest will go out of the house to the entrance, and quarantine the house for seven days. The priest will return on the seventh day, and he will look, and hey! The blemish has spread in the walls of the house. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:36-39)
tzara-at = a disease characterized by white, scaly, dead-looking skin (commonly mistranslated as “leprosy”); mildew or mold. From the same root as ha-tzirah = the hornet; the Terror, the Despair (imposed by God on Canaanite peoples so they would abandon their lands to the Israelites).
bayit = house, home, temple; household, family and servants who live together, family of descendants.
A metzora (the name of this week’s Torah portion) is someone with tzara-at, a skin disease due to anti-social behavior, requiring isolation from the community. After describing the ritual for a recovered metzora to rejoin the community, the Torah portion discusses tzara-at in clothing, and even in the walls of houses.
I’ve been fighting mildew in my house for years, here in the damp climate of western Oregon, so on a literal level I can relate to a diseased wall. The wall disease in Leviticus/Vayikra sounds worse than mildew; it’s green or red instead of mildew-gray, and it makes a depression in the clay plastered over the stone wall. If the tzara-at in a house wall has spread at the end of the seven-day quarantine, the owner must tear out the wall, dump the clay and stones outside the town, and rebuild with new materials.
These instructions also have meaning on another level. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a “household” rather than a physical house. And since the word for the disease in the walls, tzara-at, is related to the word for an overwhelming terror or despair sent by God, ha-tzirah, we could translate the first sentence above this way:
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you to own, and I put a blemish of Despair in your household, the owner of the household (the head of the family) will come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a blemish has become visible to me in the household.
In other words, the head of the household (the patriarch, in ancient Israel) notices that all is not well; someone in his family is stricken with despair. He could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the Despair might spread, and more than one member of the household would become “ritually impure”, i.e. unable to worship with the rest of the community.
So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest. Then he should clear everyone out of the house, making the problem in his family public. At this point, the priest comes in and inspects the “walls” of the household to see if they look normal.
I’m not sure what the colors “livid green” and “blood red” meant when the book of Leviticus/Vayikra was written. But I imagine one color might indicate that the family lacks adequate boundaries and has no privacy from outsiders, while the other color indicates that the family is too repressed or suppressed, and cut off from the world. Both kinds of wall disease make depressed spots in the wall … and make members of the family depressed, as well.
In this reading, God asks the “owner” of a household to expose his family dysfunction to the world, so that the priest can judge whether it is merely an ordinary depression, or the overwhelming Despair that seems so alien to normality, it must come from God. If it is the Despair, then the household must be torn apart and rebuilt, before the whole family is contaminated with despair.
The patriarchs in the Torah think of themselves as masters of their households, and do not invite interference. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business. Despite the proliferation of counselors and therapists in the West today, many people feel shame about telling an outsider that something abnormal has shown up in their families. Their shame is even worse if the problem becomes public knowledge.
But if the problem is bad enough, the household cannot continue as it has, or everyone will become infected with the Despair. A divorce, or a separation between parent and child, makes the problem public. But this exposure is necessary. The family has to suffer through the shame, so that its old, contaminated walls can be torn out and discarded, and new walls built instead.
From American Jewish World Service
Tzedek > 5771 > Metzora
Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels
Parshat Metzora describes the outbreak of “an eruptive plague upon a house”1 and the series of procedures the owner and priest must go through to check and cure it. The midrash on our parshah suggests several acts that could cause this oddity—a spiritual malady affecting an external physical object like a home. Some midrashim claim the plague comes from a lack of generosity—falsely announcing that one is going to make a charitable donation2 or refusing to lend one’s objects to one’s neighbors.3 Another suggests that its causes include idolatry, violence, self-centeredness, theft and miserliness.4 What the various midrashim seem to agree on is that the sinner is guilty of an error of the heart: the owner of the afflicted house has placed objects and prosperity before generosity and human kindness. We too suffer from this affliction today—every time we look away when someone asks us for help or don’t give as much tzedakah as we could. But we lack the visible indicator—the tzaraat on our homes, to let us know that we need to change.
Fortunately, the message of our parshah is that the plagued home—or our own plagued hearts—can be cured. Parshat Metzora provides us with a three step process. First, the house is inspected and closed off to see what will develop. Then, if necessary, the specific stones that bear the tzaraat are removed and replaced with untouched stones. Finally, if the plague continues to spread, the house is torn down completely.5
The process for healing the biblical home should provide a blueprint for healing our own ailments of the heart—greed, selfishness and failure to mend the world. Whenever our hearts stray from kindness and compassion, we must first inspect and investigate the selfishness, apathy or hardness inside of us. We can then attempt to remove these malignancies, and allow our hearts to be filled with compassion.
If the first two steps fail, and we find our hearts still closed to compassion, we must sometimes break them open. Like a home, which shelters us from the elements and prevents what’s outside from getting in, our hearts can act as barriers, keeping the pain of others out where it can’t penetrate our defenses. When our hearts clench shut so that we are so unwilling to be touched by the pain of the world that we fail to respond with compassion, it is time to break them open completely. This is not something that happens only on an internal or psychological level. Breaking open our hearts requires taking action to heal the pain in the world: opening our wallets, breaking a sweat, raising our voices and lifting our pens to bring that healing—that tikkun—which the parshah tells us is possible.
This tearing down and breaking open of our hearts is not an act of violence but a call for Divine compassion to enter, as it says in the psalms: “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted”6; or, as the midrash teaches us: “one whose heart is broken… the Shekhinah walks with him… he is considered as if an altar is built in his heart and he offers up sacrifices on it… [and] he is beloved of the Holy Blessed One more than the ministering angels.”7
From this productive broken-heartedness we open ourselves to the world in a new way, and make our relationship to that world and our fellow human beings holy. The closed hearts that come between us and others—even those in distant countries and in societies and circumstances vastly different from our own—release and open so that we can recognize our basic sameness.
Indeed, as Rashi comments, tzaraat on a house is not a plague, but a blessing, one that allows us to find the treasure which is hidden within our home.8 Similarly, when we see that we have been struck with the plague of a closed heart, and fail to respond to the need we see around us with generosity and kindness, we should understand that the awareness of this shortcoming is actually a gift, a treasure map to the riches of our true heart and the compassion that lies within it. In this sense, when we read “This is the Torah, a person that is plagued,”9 we recognize that our plagues and our impurities are our Torah, our deepest teachings, leading us to a sanctified existence within the world and a heart broken open with compassion.
1 Leviticus 14:34.
2 Leviticus Rabbah 16:5.
3 Leviticus Rabbah 17:2.
4 Leviticus Rabbah 17:3.
5 Leviticus 14:38-45.
6 Psalms 34:19.
7 Ozar ha-Midrashim, Alef-bet of Rabbi Akivah, nusach aleph, beit ha-midrash 3:12.
8 Rashi on Leviticus 14:34.
9 Leviticus 14:32.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Wendy’s comment: This is a very creative drash by Reb James.It is written like a noir detective short story.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Metzora 5774/2014: “Human Boundaries and Inclusion”
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Every year the weeks leading up to Pesach include the Torah portions Tazria and Metzora, which enumerate many rules regarding ritual fitness surrounding such bodily experiences as skin ailments and childbirth. The rules for the ‘Metzora’, the person afflicted by a spiritual skin disease (‘tzara’at,’ consistently mistranslated as leprosy) teach that if a person suspects that they have tzara’at, the Kohein/priest must examine them for diagnosis. If they are found to truly have tzara’at, they are sent outside of the camp. Today’s incarnation of the Kohein is the religious leadership who are the gatekeepers, either restricting people from or admitting people to community.
Rabbi Chayim ben Attar (1696-1743) of Italy and Jerusalem pointed to a fascinating aspect of the Torah’s instructions. In his “Or HaChayim” he comments on a strange doubling of language in Lev. 13:45, where we read, “As for the Metzora person who has tum’ah (unfitness).” He writes:
“It appears necessary to interpret the verse in the following way… It is written that the person’s body is tzarua, end nevertheless the Kohein must declare him unfit. And if the Kohein does not declare him Metzora, he has no unfitness… The truly unfit one is the one that is afflicted –and- that the Kohein designates. But if the Kohein designates as unfit someone who is not tzarua, that one is not unfit.”
If a person has signs of tzara’at, and it is obvious to him and to those around him, the Kohein must still label him unfit before he is bound to the category. On the one hand, if a Kohein labels as Metzora one who does not have tzara’at, the labeling doesn’t hold in the eyes of Heaven. On the other hand, if one truly has tzara’at and the Kohein overlooks it, they are not unfit in the eyes of Heaven. The power of the religious leader is enormous, both to religiously stigmatize – and perhaps to reserve Heaven’s judgment.
The antidote for is:
“On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair–of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. (Lev. 14:9-10)”
This recipe is tremendously expensive. If you were an afflicted person without considerable means, you would presumably be locked out from the cure. But we read a little later:
“If, however, he is poor and his means are insufficient, he shall take one male lamb for a guilt offering, to be elevated in expiation for him, one-tenth of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and a log of oil; and two turtledoves or two pigeons, depending on his means, the one to be the sin offering and the other the burnt offering. (Lev. 14:21-22)”
If you believe that God wrote the Torah, then you probably interpret these texts as demonstrating that God wants afflicted people to be able to find a way back. God isn’t concerned with money – God cares about the individual’s striving.
If you believe that human beings wrote the Torah, your interpretation is probably much the same – but you might see the human arbitration of the Kohein as an inherited philosophy of human boundary-setting with flexible regulations for inclusion.
As my colleague Rabbi Neal Loevinger writes, “one of the reasons Judaism insists that spirituality happens within community is precisely so that we learn how to care for others, as God cares for us, and in so doing, become more fully aware of the Divine image within ourselves and others. If the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the metzorah of insufficient means was to be welcomed into the most sacred spaces and rituals, then surely we can find a way to make sure that Jews all along the financial spectrum feel truly welcome in every organization dedicated to Jewish life.”
We read, in the initial description of someone afflicted with tzara’at:
“As for the person with tzara’at, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unfit as long as the disease is on him. Being unfit, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-46)”
It is important to note, as has Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, in his most recent book, “Leviticus”:
“The practice of certified scale-diseased persons to ward off oncomers by pointing to their impurity (Lev. 13:45) is paralleled by this poignant picture of the Jerusalemites after their city was destroyed: ‘They wandered blindly through the streets, defiled with blood, so that no one was able to touch their garments. ‘Away! Unfit!’ people shouted at them, Away! Away! Touch not!’ (Lam. 4:15)”
Jews know what it is like to be pointed at and derided. But what a contrast: Whereas in the Lamentations text others are shouting at the excluded one, the Leviticus text instructs the afflicted one to point to himself. What might this mean? Perhaps, as in The Who’s “Tommy”, the suffering person is calling out “See me, feel me Touch me, heal me.” The individual is calling attention to her own internal struggles.
We can see the structures of Tazria/Metzora as guidelines for “making the tough choices” when resources are limited. A child requiring special Education, a potential drain on any school’s budget, would therefore not be guaranteed a place. A handicapped person requiring a ramp to get to the bimah might not, depending on the shul’s budget, rise for an aliyah with dignity. In fact, perhaps constructing shuls without bimahs is the way to achieve dignity in a truly egalitarian fashion.
The ethical imperative of religious inclusion has its basis in the powerful role granted to the Kohein in the Torah, and to clergy and lay-leadership in today’s religious communities. Outsiders are created by our categorization processes. Exclusion is a choice, not a mitzvah.
I end with the words of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1859; the “Ishbitzer Rebbe”) in his classic Chassidic commentary on the Torah, “Mei HaShiloach/The Drawn Waters”:
“[When the Torah says that the person afflicted with tzara’at must be brought to the Kohein] it means that the Kohein, experienced in awe and holy service, has the ability to discern in large and small matters whether or not they are the Will of God. And that quality is actually found in every Jew, but not all the time. The ability to discern God’s Will activates when the Jew is occupied with awe and holy service, when the individual Jew elects upon himself the role of the Kohein, constrains his own self in order to begin healing.”
May it be our wills, speedily and in our days.
Tahor is pure
What we thought corrupted
What is whole
A broken heart
From Rabbi David Kasher
Shedding the Skin: Parshat Metzora
From Rav Kook
Tazria/Metzora: Purifying Time and Soul
The Torah discusses various types of tum’ah (ritual impurity), the most prominent being tzara’at, a skin affliction similar to leprosy. Purification from these forms of impurity includes immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) or natural spring. Immersion alone, however, is not sufficient; even after immersing, the individual remains impure until the start of the evening.
“The sun sets and then he is ritually clean. He may then eat the sacred offerings that are his portion.” (Lev. 22:7)
Waiting until the Day is ‘Clean’
Curiously, the Talmud (Berachot 2a) interprets this verse in a forced fashion: “The sun sets and then it” — the day — “is clean” (i.e., finished). The Sages explained that the day must be completely over before the individual may partake of his offering.
Why not understand the verse literally: when the sun sets, the person is ritually clean? Why emphasize that the day must be ‘clean’?
According to Maimonides in his “Guide for the Perplexed” (III: 47), different forms of tum’ah correspond to various flawed character traits, erroneous beliefs, and impure acts. The Sages wrote that tzara’at, for example, is the result of slander and haughtiness. It is logical, then, that the various stages of purification — immersion in a spring or mikveh, waiting until nighttime, and bringing an offering — will be connected to the correction of these faults.
Two Aspects to Repair
The Talmud refers to two levels of purification: purifying the day (“tehar yoma”), and purifying the individual (“tehar gavra”). What is the difference between the two?
Our goal in life should be to grow spiritually and become closer to our Creator. When we sin, we stray from our overall objective. We have also misused time that could have been utilized for spiritual growth. A full life is one in which all of the days have been employed towards one’s principle objective. Abraham, the Torah tells us, was ba bayamim, ‘well advanced in days’ (Gen. 24:1). His days and years were full and complete, wholly occupied with spiritual pursuits.
When we stray from our spiritual aspirations, we need to make two distinct efforts in order to return to our original path. If I were to upset a friend, I would first need to correct my hurtful behavior. However, that alone would be insufficient to restore the friendship to its former state. The relationship will remain fragile until I have made an additional effort to rebuild the ties of friendship and affection.
The first stage — correcting the faulty behavior or flawed character trait – is analogous to the cleansing action of immersion in water. We immerse ourselves in the mikveh, leaving behind negative traits and flawed deeds. As we immerse ourselves in spiritual repair, we restore to the dimension of time its original purity. The day has not been lost to sin. With the setting of the sun, we begin a new day and a new start. This is the first level of purification, what the Sages called tehar yoma. The day has been purified; we have rectified the dimension of time.
Yet, we have not completely regained our previous state of purity. We still need to restore our former closeness to God. This is achieved through the final stage of purification: “he may then eat the sacred offerings.” With renewed desire to be close to God, we bring an offering. The offering (in Hebrew, korban, from the root karav, to draw near) enables us to draw closer to our Maker with awe and love. At this point, we repair our relationship with God. Not only has the element of time been rectified, we too have become cleansed and renewed. This is the level of tehar gavra, when the individual is fully purified, and his errors are transformed into merits.
(“Gold from the Land of Israel” pp. 195-197.Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 2-3.)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
LIKE A LEPER MESSIAH – Parshat Tazria-Metzora
This post originally appears at Kevah.org.
We Jews, who have been perennial outcasts, ought to read the Torah’s account of the leper with particular care.
Throughout history, lepers have been demonized and feared, quarantined, and often even physically sent out of society, to go and live in leper colonies. It’s hard to fathom a more extreme version of the outcast. Surely, then, there is something in the leper’s story that we need to know.
Our double-reading this week covers the central discussion of leprosy in the Torah. At the end of Parshat Tazria, we begin to catalogue all manner of skin afflictions and finally come upon leprosy. Then, in Parshat Metzora – which literally translates into ‘The Parsha of the Leper’ – we move to the process for curing the leper.
This cure is effected through an intricate set of mysterious rituals. The priest orders two birds, one of which he slaughters and the other he sets free. He dips two kinds of wood into the bird’s blood and sprinkles the blood seven times onto the leper. Then the leper washes his clothes, shaves off all his hair, and bathes in water. After seven days, he is pronounced clean.
Yet even before the leper is fully “cured,” before the seven-day clock starts, as soon as he undergoes the ritual and bathes, we read:
…after that, he shall enter the camp. (Lev. 14:8)
וְאַחַר, יָבוֹא אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה
This is rather surprising, since we were told earlier, when we first read about leprosy:
He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean he shall sit alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:46)
כָּל-יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ, יִטְמָא–טָמֵא הוּא: בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב, מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ.
“He shall sit alone.” It’s very stark, very sad language. Yet his aloneness doesn’t last long. The Torah launches right into the detailed procedure for treating him, and as soon as that begins, we bring him right back into the camp. No leper colony; not even a week of exile. There are still precautionary measures taken, but but the leper comes back into the camp, among his people.
That’s the paradigm. That’s how the Lord wants us to deal with the leper. Help him. And bring him back in.
But that model doesn’t last. We will read about the leper again, later in the Bible, and this time his situation is altogether different.
Every parsha is assigned a Haftarah, a particular reading from the books of the prophets. These selections are not chosen randomly; they always have some thematic link to the passage from the Torah that’s just been read. Often, they offer a new spin on that theme, and serve as a subtle way of reflecting on and reinterpreting the original story. This week’s Haftarah is taken from the book of Kings, and it begins – as you might guess – with another story of lepers:
Four men, who were lepers, were outside the entrance to the gate. They said to one another, “Why should we sit here, waiting for death? If we decide to go into the town, we shall die there; and if we just sit here, we still die. So let us go down into the Aramean camp. If they let us live, we shall live; and if they put us to death, we would have died anyway.” (Kings II 7:3-4)
וְאַרְבָּעָה אֲנָשִׁים הָיוּ מְצֹרָעִים, פֶּתַח הַשָּׁעַר; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, מָה אֲנַחְנוּ יֹשְׁבִים פֹּה, עַד-מָתְנוּ. אִם-אָמַרְנוּ נָבוֹא הָעִיר וְהָרָעָב בָּעִיר, וָמַתְנוּ שָׁם, וְאִם-יָשַׁבְנוּ פֹה, וָמָתְנוּ; וְעַתָּה, לְכוּ וְנִפְּלָה אֶל-מַחֲנֵה אֲרָם–אִם-יְחַיֻּנוּ נִחְיֶה, וְאִם-יְמִיתֻנוּ, וָמָתְנוּ.
They end up going into the camp and finding it abandoned, and their report plays a pivotal role in the story. But leaving aside the context for a moment, let’s just consider the opening image.
These lepers are sitting outside the gate, starving, abandoned, and totally desperate. Where is their healer? Where is their community? All they have is each other, the other lepers. It is eerily like a little leper colony.
The book of Kings documents the chaotic years of wars and wicked monarchs. After Solomon’s reign, things have begun to fall apart. So what we’re seeing here is a society that has so completely devolved that it is no longer tending to its most needy. We went from a whole parsha devoted to bringing the leper in to a story of lepers who are hopelessly outside, lingering pathetically at the gates.
Yet there is a even more harrowing account of the leper in Jewish tradition. It appears in the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, one of the most fascinating sections in the Talmud. The rabbis here are dealing with all kinds of major theological issues, including theories of redemption. One of the questions they ask (on page 98a) is: ‘When will the Messiah come?’ There are lots of cryptic answers, that read like riddles. There is even an radical opinion that there will be no messiah for Israel. But one of the most striking answers is given in a story that features our old friend the leper:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah (the prophet) standing by the entrance to the cave of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai… He asked him, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where does he sit?”
“At the entrance to the city.”
“And by what signs will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor lepers. They all untie their bandages all at once when they need to rebandage themselves. But he unties and rebandages in parts, one by one, thinking, maybe I’ll suddenly be needed, and I want to be ready at any minute.”
ר’ יהושע בן לוי אשכח לאליהו דהוי קיימי אפיתחא דמערתא דרבי שמעון בן יוחאי … אמר ליה אימת אתי משיח אמר ליה זיל שייליה לדידיה והיכא יתיב אפיתחא דקרתא ומאי סימניה יתיב ביני עניי סובלי חלאים וכולן שרו ואסירי בחד זימנא איהו שרי חד ואסיר חד אמר דילמא מבעינא דלא איעכב
Notice, by the way, how this story plays on the last two:
‘Where does he sit?’ / ‘He sits alone.’
‘The entrance to the gate.’ / ‘The entrance to the city.’
And the answer to the question of when the Messiah will come, in this version is: he’s already here! But you don’t notice him. In fact, he’s a total outcast: a leper.
That means, by all rights – in fact, by God’s order – you should be doing everything you can to bring him in and heal him. But instead he sits there, with the other lepers, waiting for you.
Perhaps it is at this point that we ought to make it clear that none of these stories are really about leprosy – at least not as we know it today. There is some skin affliction going on, and we usually translate it as ‘leprosy,’ but most scholars now think that the Hebrew word, ’tzaraat’ (צרעת) refers to some other kind of disease. In fact, the classical commentators generally agree that – though it had a physical manifestation – this was a spiritual malady.
If that is true, it lends an entirely different read to all of these stories. The one who sits alone outside the camp is suffering spiritually. When we go out to heal him, and to bring him in, we are tending not just to his body, but to his aching soul. Maybe that’s why he’s brought back in a week before he is fully cured. Because, in a sense, bringing him back into the camp is the cure.
But what happens? Time passes, society hardens, and we begin to forget to bring people in. We forget those who are suffering spiritually. They are left to sneak their way – or fight their way – back into the community.
And then, eventually, they give up. They sit outside, nursing their wounds, waiting. Waiting for something to change.
Meanwhile, there we are, just through the gate, also waiting. Waiting for the redemption. Waiting for the messiah to come save us, when he’s right there behind the wall. We wait for him on one side while he waits for us on the other.
That’s why the book of Lamentations, which we read on the day we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and beg, in agony, for our redemption, begins as follows – with “leper language”:
“Alas! The city, once great with people, sits alone…” (Lamentations 1:1)
אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם–הָיְתָה
Back in the Talmud, the story ends with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi going up to the Leper Messiah and asking him:
“When will you come, Master?”
“Today,” he answered.
א“ל לאימת אתי מר א”ל היום
The rabbi is confused. Today?! He goes back to Elijah and says, “He lied to me! He said he would come today, but he has not.“ Elijah explains that, no, it’s true, but what he meant was “today” as it appears in line from the Psalms:
“Today, if you will hear God’s voice.” (Psalms 95:7)
הַיּוֹם, אִם-בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ.
Redemption could come today, any day, any moment. But first, we have to “hear God’s voice.” And what does God say? We’ve long forgotten, but it was right there in our parsha, in the beginning of the procedure for curing the leper:
“The priest shall go outside the camp.” (Lev. 14:3)
וְיָצָא, הַכֹּהֵן, אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה
The redeemer doesn’t come to us. We go out to find the redeemer. We go out to the sick, the suffering, the outcasts of all kinds. We comfort them, cleanse them, heal them. And we bring them back into the camp, in through the gates, back into the community.
When we remember how to do that, our redemption is at hand. In fact, maybe that is our redemption.
The leper, it turns out, is the one who can save us all.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
The wholeness of the wounded
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week we have a double portion: Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33). And what a doozy it is!! It has to do with the impact of skin diseases, contaminated clothing, leprous houses (no joke), seminal emissions, and menstrual discharge. Lucky kid who gets this as their Bar or Bat Mitzvah portion, huh? Well, yeah, because these portions also teach about healing and danger, ministration and contamination, care and risk.
Each of these disturbances—of the body, domicile, reproductive energy—are of importance to the greater community. The Priests are called upon to act as diagnosticians, to examine closely the lesions, scabs, warts, and blemishes of human skin, clothing and shelter. They assess the hairs growing through patches of discoloration, how deeply the affliction penetrates, whether the wound weeps or is dry and scaly.
I so often hear spirituality described in glowing terms—it’s about healing and light, purity and transcendence—while religion is more often than not relegated to the realm of superstition, blind obeisance and oppression. I don’t agree with either of those analyses; rather, I think that spirituality and religion are two different tracks leading to an acceptance of the pain, suffering, and loss that go hand in hand with joy, delight, and blessing. And this Torah portion says it all.
The priests are called to minister through ritual and heart. They are called upon to get up close and personal with what is ugly, putrefied, and possibly contagious. They must see past the fouled and inflamed external layers to what is pure and wholesome below. To be healers they found themselves in direct contact with suffering and disease.
And this is the nature of spiritual work. We risk being infected with the very disease we are trying to heal. To step into a true spiritual path, one inevitably throws oneself in harm’s way, because like it or not, the world we inhabit—with all its beauty, delight, sustenance, and marvel—is rough on all living things. The Priest’s job is to find the wholeness, purity, and sterling nature even of the wounded. And that is a tall order.
This then is at the core of what it means to engage in a spiritual life, a life of service and a life of healing: to resist the impulse to shy away from difficulty, suffering, and the grotesque, but instead cultivate an eye for beauty, a curious mind, and a fearless heart. Poet, writer and Israeli peace activist David Grossman lived through his son’s death while serving in the military. Grossman teaches that the pain of remembering his loss is excruciating, but the pain of forgetting his son would be even worse. And despite his grief, he continues in the struggle for peace—for to be a healer, one has to draw close to the wound.
There is always a risk that the Priest will not be strong enough, resilient enough, or perceptive enough to bring about a state of tahor—balance, stability, and refinement. Some will be sickened by what they touch, see, or feel. It’s a real peril of spiritual life. But if it is in your nature, if you are called to the art of healing, ministry, or soul repair, you will take that chance. In Hebrew the word for a Priest is Cohein, an anointed one, a minister, a spiritual officer. But if you scramble the sounds of that title to Cayhayon you have dimness, faintness, fading.
As this Shabbat arrives let us find the courage to offer, care for, and nurture the wounded parts of our lives, our families, and our world—despite the risks. Let us spend these precious Shabbes hours seeking inner strength, faith, and trust that even if we fail in our spiritual efforts, we know we will be tended to. For the Priests are always amongst us, around us, and within us, seeking to find purity and hope in our bruised and bandaged world.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Power of Speech
As we saw in Parshat Tazria, the Sages identify tzara’at – the condition that affects human skin, the fabric of garments, and the walls of a house – not as an illness but as a punishment, and not for any sin but for one specific sin, that of lashon hara, evil speech.
This prompts the obvious question: Why evil speech and not some other sin? Why should speaking be worse than, say, physical violence? There is an old English saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones/but words will never harm me.” It is unpleasant to hear bad things said about you, but surely no more than that.
There is not even a direct prohibition against evil speech in the Torah. There is a prohibition against gossip: “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people” (Lev. 19:16). Lashon hara is a subset of this larger command. Here is how Maimonides defines it: “There is a far greater sin that falls under this prohibition [of gossip]. It is ‘the evil tongue,’ which refers to whoever speaks disparagingly of his fellow, even though he speaks the truth.”
The Sages go to remarkable lengths to emphasise its seriousness. It is, they say, as bad as all three cardinal sins together – idol worship, bloodshed, and illicit sexual relations. Whoever speaks with an evil tongue, they say, is as if he denied God. They also say: it is forbidden to dwell in the vicinity of any of those with an evil tongue, and all the more to sit with them and to listen to their words. Why are mere words treated with such seriousness in Judaism?
The answer touches on one of the most basic principles of Jewish belief. There are ancient cultures who worshipped the gods because they saw them as powers: lightning, thunder, the rain and sun, the sea and ocean that epitomised the forces of chaos, and sometimes wild animals that represented danger and fear. Judaism was not a religion that worshipped power, despite the fact that God is more powerful than any pagan deity.
Judaism, like other religions, has holy places, holy people, sacred times, and consecrated rituals. What made Judaism different, however, is that it is supremely a religion of holy words. With words God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be…and there was.” Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy. That is why lashon hara, the use of language to harm, is not merely a minor offence. It involves taking something that is holy and using it for purposes that are unholy. It is a kind of desecration.
After creating the universe, God’s first gift to the first man was the power to use words to name the animals, and thus to use language to classify. This was the start of the intellectual process that is the distinguishing mark of Homo sapiens. The Targum translates the phrase, “And man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7) as “a speaking spirit.” Evolutionary biologists nowadays take the view that it was the demands of language and the advantage this gave humans over every other life form that led to the massive expansion of the human brain.
When God sought to halt the plan of the people of Babel to build a tower that would reach heaven, He merely “confused their language” so they were unable to communicate. Language remains basic to the existence of human groups. It was the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century that led to the gradual downplaying of regional dialects in favour of a single shared language across the territory over which a political authority had sovereignty. To this day, differences of language, where they exist within a single nation, are the source of ongoing political and social friction, for example between English and French speakers in Canada; Dutch, French, German, and Walloon speakers in Belgium; and the Spanish and Basque (also known as Euskara) languages in Spain. God created the natural universe with words. We create – and sometimes destroy – the social universe with words.
So the first principle of language in Judaism is that it is creative. We create worlds with words. The second principle is no less fundamental. Abrahamic monotheism introduced into the world the idea of a God who transcends the universe, and who therefore cannot be identified with any phenomenon within the universe. God is invisible. Hence in Judaism all religious images and icons are a sign of idolatry.
How then does an invisible God reveal Himself? Revelation was not a problem for polytheism. The pagans saw gods in the panoply of nature that surrounds us, making us feel small in its vastness and powerless in the face of its fury. A God who cannot be seen or even represented in images demands an altogether different kind of religious sensibility. Where can such a God be found?
The answer again is: in words. God spoke. He spoke to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, as Moses reminded the Israelites, “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12). In Judaism, words are the vehicle of revelation. The prophet is the man or woman who hears and speaks the word of God. That was the phenomenon that neither Spinoza nor Einstein could understand. They could accept the idea of a God who created heaven and earth, the force of forces and cause of causes, the originator of, as we call it nowadays, the Big Bang, the God who was the architect of matter and the composer of order. God, Einstein famously said, “does not play dice with the universe.” Indeed, it is ultimately faith in the universe as the product of a single creative intelligence that underlies the scientific mindset from the outset.
Judaism calls this aspect of God Elokim. But we believe in another aspect of God also, which we call Hashem, the God of relationship – and relationship exists by virtue of speech. For it is speech that allows us to communicate with others and share with them our fears, hopes, loves, plans, feelings, and intentions. Speech allows us to convey our inwardness to others. It is at the very heart of the human bond. A God who could create universes but not speak or listen would be an impersonal god – a god incapable of understanding what makes us human. Worshipping such a god would be like bowing down to the sun or to a giant computer. We might care about it but it could not care about us. That is not the God of Abraham.
Words are remarkable in another way as well. We can use language not just to describe or assert. We can use it to create new moral facts. The Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin called this special use of language “performative utterance.” The classic example is making a promise. When I make a promise, I create an obligation that did not exist before. Nietzsche believed that the ability to make a promise was the birth of morality and human responsibility.
Hence the idea at the heart of Judaism: brit, covenant, which is nothing other than a mutually binding promise between God and human beings. What defines the special relationship between the Jewish people and God is not that He brought them from slavery to freedom. He did that, says the prophet Amos, to other people as well: “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). It is the fact that at Sinai, God and Israel entered into a mutual pledge that linked them in an everlasting bond.
Covenant is the word that joins heaven and earth, the word spoken, the word heard, the word affirmed and honoured in trust. For that reason, Jews were able to survive exile. They may have lost their home, their land, their power, their freedom, but they still had God’s word, the word He said He would never break or rescind. The Torah, in the most profound sense, is the word of God, and Judaism is the religion of holy words.
It follows that to misuse or abuse language to sow suspicion and dissension is not just destructive. It is sacrilege. It takes something holy, the human ability to communicate and thus join soul to soul, and use it for the lowest of purposes, to divide soul from soul and destroy the trust on which non-coercive relationships depend.
That, according to the Sages, is why the speaker of lashon hara was smitten by leprosy and forced to live as a pariah outside the camp. The punishment was measure for measure.
What is special about the person afflicted with tzara’at that the Torah says, “He shall live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46)? The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “Since this person sought to create division between man and wife, or a person and his neighbour, [he is punished by being divided from the community], which is why it says, ‘Let him live alone, outside the camp.’”
Language, in Judaism, is the basis of creation, revelation, and the moral life. It is the air we breathe as social beings. Hence the statement in Proverbs (18:21), “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Likewise, the verse in Psalms, “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (Ps. 34:13–14).
Judaism emerged as an answer to a series of questions: How can finite human beings be connected to an infinite God? How can they be connected to one another? How can there be co-operation, collaboration, collective action, families, communities, and a nation, without the coercive use of power? How can we form relationships of trust? How can we redeem the human person from his or her solitude? How can we create collective liberty such that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours?
The answer is: through words, words that communicate, words that bind, words that honour the Divine Other and the human other. Lashon hara, “evil speech,” by poisoning language, destroys the very basis of the Judaic vision. When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage the very ecology of freedom.
That is why the Sages take lashon hara so seriously, why they regard it as the gravest of sins, and why they believe that the entire phenomenon of tzara’at, leprosy in people, mildew in clothes and houses, was God’s way of making it public and stigmatised.
Never take language lightly, implies the Torah. For it was through language that God created the natural world, and through language that we create and sustain our social world. It is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe.
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 7:2.
 Arachin 15b.
 Arachin 15a.
 See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: William Morrow, 1994); Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2010).
 J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, essay 2 in On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
 Yalkut Shimoni I:552.
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