Tazriah – Metzorah  תשפ

This coming Shabbat, two portions will be read in Shul (that is, if there were services). The main topic of these two portions is the “metzorah,” one who was stricken with the malady -צרעת  “tzaraat” (or tzaraas). The usual translation of tzaraat is leprosy, a translation that is completely erroneous. From a clinical standpoint, the tzaraat described in the Torah does not in any way resemble those of leprosy, more properly known as Hansen’s Disease. Most significantly, the Torah commentaries explain that tzaraat was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise. 

Tzaraat presents itself as colored blemishes that could appear on a person’s house, clothing, or various places on his skin, including the parts of his head and face that are covered with hair. These blemishes can occur in women as well. 

The blemish originates on the stones of the house or the fabric of the person’s clothing. The rabbis emphasize that tzaraat is not a living entity such as mold that grows on a house or garment, but, rather, constitutes a spiritual malady, which necessitates a “spiritual” cure. Since the house and garment are themselves the source of the blemish, and they are inanimate objects, there is no natural process in the world through which something can grow in them. Therefore, the blemish, which has suddenly appeared, is a miracle from Hashem. 

The Talmud (ערכין ט”ז) says: 

א”ר שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: על שבעה דברים נגעים באין-על לשון הרע ועל שפיכות דמים ועל שבועת שוא ועל גילוי עריות ועל גסות הרוח ועל הגזל ועל צרות העין

Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmeini said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Tzaraat comes for seven things:  1. Lashon hara – saying something negative about someone, 2. Murder, 3. a false oath, 4. sexual immorality, 5. Haughtiness, 6. Robbery, and 7. selfishness. 

The laws of lashon hara provide that something may constitute lashon hara even when it is true. The sin of lashon hara comprises saying something negative about someone, thus lowering his status in the eyes of another. The statement’s “truth” is thus irrelevant. (Unlike American civil law where truth is a perfect defense. If one says something negative about another that has a devastating impact on that person’s career or family, if the statement is true, the damaged party has no redress.) But is it ever permissible to relate something negative about someone else? The answer is yes:  A constructive purpose for revealing the information, removes it from the category of lashon hara. For example, if someone consults with you about taking a particular individual as a business partner knowing that you were once his business partner, you could say, “I wouldn’t advise it” to help him avoid a problem. (Of course, you may say only what is absolutely necessary to protect the inquirer; you may not proceed to tell him every piece of dirt that you may have on the questioned person.)

Moreover, if the information that you provide is untrue, you have violated the prohibition called “מוציא שם רע” giving a person a bad reputation

The appearance of a tzaraat blemish is cause for major concern. It is the sign from Heaven that something is wrong and requires prompt correction. This could cause a major upheaval in life, as the process for getting rid of it may be long and difficult. The Torah mandates that only a Cohen can decide if a blemish is tamei  (no good) or tahor (no problem). 

If a person found a blemish on some stones of his house, his first act would be to empty the house of its contents, because if when the Cohen sees the blemish and pronounces it “tamei”- no good, then everything in the house becomes tamei – spiritually unclean, and requires ritual purification. What is not in the house, does not become tamei. (Reason #7 above – selfishness, includes being unwilling to lend items to friends and neighbors. When they asked him to borrow his blender, he said, “I don’t own one.” When they asked to borrow a vacuum cleaner, he again said, “I don’t have one.” When he emptied the house, out came the blender, and the vacuum cleaner for all to see. This will teach him not to be selfish in the future!)

The Cohen then enters the house to examine the blemish. If it qualifies as a bona fide blemish (satisfying certain color and size criteria), the Cohen seals the house and renders it off limits for seven days, requiring the owner to find a place to live and store his stuff for at least a week. On the seventh day the Cohen returns to look at the blemish. If its color has paled or its size has diminished, he scrapes off the blemish and the house is tahor – “clean” and everything returns to normal. If, however, the blemish has remained the same in color and size, the house must be closed up for another week. If the blemish has grown in size, he must remove the stones with the blemish from the house and replace them with new clean ones. He then closes up the house for another week. After the third week, the Cohen returns and if the new stones are without a blemish, the house is again clean, but the owner will have to bring a sacrifice of two birds for atonement. If, however, the blemish returned to the new stones. the house must be razed. 

This is just one scenario relevant to tzaraat of a house. There are similar protocols for a garment and a blemish on a person’s skin. 

In each case, to give the victim time to think about his actions and figure out what is causing the problem, the blemish is closed up for a week at a time. If he has successfully repaired his folly, the blemish will shrink or fade, and the Cohen will pronounce it clean upon return. Should, however, the person not take his situation seriously and remains the “same person” or has perhaps gotten even worse, the blemish, too, remains. Staying the same requires a second seven days; more time is necessary. If it has worsened, the person needs some really strong medicine, and  if he doesn’t shape up, he may lose his house.

When the blemish affects a person’s skin, he is sent out of the city for seven days to a special place where he sits alone. He may not be together with any other person, even someone else with tzaraat. Not only that, but if someone approaches him, he must call out to warn the person, “I am tamei, I am tamei, stay away!” 

Rashi explains the correlation between lashon hara and being in solitude with no option for camaraderie as follows (Leviticus 13:46):

ואמרו רבותינו מה נשתנה משאר טמאים לישב בדד הואיל והוא הבדיל בלשון הרע בין איש לאשתו ובין איש לרעהו אף הוא יבדל

Our Sages have said, “Why is this spiritually unclean person different than all the others, that he must be in solitude? Because his lashon hara caused a separation between a man and his wife or one Jew and his fellow, his fate is that he must sit alone.”

The Midrash (Tanchuma Tazriah 10) tells us: 

(י) אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו (שם יג). קשה לפני הקב”ה לפשוט ידו באדם הזה. ומה הוא עושה? מתרה בו תחלה ואח”כ מלקה אותו שנא’ (שם יד) ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתכם בתחלה מלקה ביתו חזר בו מוטב ואם לאו מלקה בגדיו שנאמר (שם) והבגד כי יהיה בו נגע צרעת חזר בו מוטב ואם לאו באים בגופו שנא’ אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו

Hashem hates to inflict a person directly, so what does He do? He gives him warnings, then He punishes him directly. First Hashem puts the blemish in his house. If he repents, fine, but if not, Hashem inflicts his garment. If he repents, fine, if not, then Hashem inflicts his body. 

This is very serious! If a person doesn’t repair his ways, he could spend months involved in tzaraat

Interestingly, lashon hara is first in the list of reasons for tzaraat. The commentaries explain that not only is it the most common cause of tzaraat, it is also the most heinous of all its reasons. 

In today’s world, where communication – the spoken word – is so ubiquitous and has advanced to the point where it permeates every aspect of our lives through smartphones and social media, this claim sounds ridiculous. How could a simple spoken word be worse than murder? Isn’t talk cheap? Remember, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”?   

The Torah’s perspective on the matter is completely different. Words are our most potent tools, both for good and for bad. When used for good, in prayer or in praise or in complementing another, they are our most powerful instruments of good and can change the world in an instant. When used for bad, they are the most destructive of devices and can destroy an entire world in a second. How is that? 

When Hashem created man, the Torah tells us (Genesis 2:7):

וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

And Hashem blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. 

Onkelos, translates this verse into Aramaic as: 

והות באדם לרוח ממללא

As the soul was manifest in Adam, he became a speaking spirit.  

Our Sages learn from Onkelos’s addition that man’s power of speech is what defines a human being and is what elevates him above all other creatures. The power of speech, which allows a person to articulate for the consideration of others the thoughts of his mind, and the feelings in his heart, epitomize man’s ability to reason and make moral choices. Before speaking, he must first carefully consider the words that he will utter and decide if they are appropriate or not. If they are appropriate, he must then decide how he wishes to say them for there are many ways to say the same thing. We can say them with sensitivity and care, or with intent to hurt. 

Because the power of speech is where man’s spiritual nature is manifest, man’s words have the power to penetrate and touch the very essence and soul of the other person. Have you ever been moved to tears by something that someone has said? Those words touched your soul so deeply that they evoked the deepest reaction from you; your whole being was affected. Have you ever listened to a lecture that excited you and inspired you to change something about yourself, or to take action where you never thought you would? Those words affected you so profoundly, they absolutely changed you! Words enter our souls, and they can also destroy us from the inside.

The Talmud (Bava Metziah 59a) relates: 

אמר דוד לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, רבונו של עולם גלוי וידוע לפניך שאם היו מקרעים בשרי לא היה דמי שותת לארץ ולא עוד אלא אפילו בשעה שעוסקין בנגעים ואהלות אומרים לי דוד הבא על אשת איש מיתתו במה ואני אומר להם מיתתו בחנק ויש לו חלק לעולם הבא אבל המלבין את פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעולם הבא

King David said to Hashem, “Master of the Universe, You know that if they would cut my flesh (when I am embarrassed) my blood wouldn’t flow out of my veins (because it has been displaced out of embarrassment). Not only that, when we are studying … they would say to me, “David, what is the punishment for one who has an affair with a married woman?” (This was a deliberate attempt to embarrass King David about the incident with Bat Sheva, who was actually completely divorced at the time). I would respond to them, “He is executed by the court, but he still has a portion in the World to Come. On the other hand, one who embarrasses another in public, has no share in the World to Come.” 

When a person embarrasses someone in public, he has killed the person (the soul) inside the body, the real person, and therefore he has no place in the world to come. When one actually murders someone, however, he has killed only the body; the victim’s soul remains intact. This illustrates how words are more powerful than actions. 

When speaking disparagingly to someone about a fellow Jew, two factors make the matter so grievous: 

  1. A person who speaks negatively about another Jew is committing another crime. When he says, “Do you know so and so? He is so cheap, he never gives any charity!” he is also implying, “But I am not like that! I am a much better person than he is! I give charity.”  What he has done here is to make himself look better at the expense of another. By denigrating someone else, he grants himself a false boost to his ego. 

Imagine a person in a library who is too short to reach the book that he wants. He needs about another 6 inches. What does he do? He grabs the guy next to him, throws him on the floor, and steps on his head to gain the extra few inches he needs to reach the book.  This is exactly what lashon hara is. He is using the other person’s shortcoming to make himself look better. This, by the way, is the allure of lashon hara. It gives a person a quick fix, the illusion that he is better than the person he has spoken ill about. The reality, though, is that he is the same person that he was before he spoke the lashon hara. He hasn’t grown a bit. That someone else has done something wrong doesn’t make him any better at all. He hasn’t grown six inches; he has only stepped on the other person’s head. 

  1. The Jewish nation is considered one unit. We are like one-person, joined at the heart. 

The prophet Yechezkel said (34:31):

לא) וְאַתֵּן צֹאנִי צֹאן מַרְעִיתִי אָדָם אַתֶּם אֲנִי אֱלֹקֵיכֶם 

31) And you are My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are Man, and I am your G-d.

The Talmud Yevamot (61a) derives from this passage that only the Jewish nation is called Adam (man), and the other nations of the world are not called Adam.

קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל שנאמר ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם

The entire Jewish nation comprises one unit, similar to a human being. Just as the human body comprises more than 37 trillion cells – heart cells, muscle cells, brain cells, etc. –all of which have the identical DNA and work tirelessly together to give life to the body, similarly, each Jewish person is like one cell in the Adam  of the Jewish nation, doing his part to keep the Jewish nation alive and well. 

When one speaks negatively about another Jew, lessening him in the eyes of his audience, he has driven a wedge between one Jew and another and has weakened the structure of the Jewish nation. Just as when one part of the body is sick and not operating properly, it negatively affects the rest of the body, so, too, when the Jewish nation are not united and are at odds with each other, it weakens the entire “body” of the nation. Every Jewish person must have the utmost respect and regard for every other Jew. They must consider every other Jew their ally their friend and their brother. This person has committed a national crime (!) by creating a fissure in the Jewish nation. 

When the corona virus first hit the scene, with its mandatory quarantine rule, our Sages immediately connected it to lashon hara and announced that perhaps we are being given a taste of what it is like to be alone, because of the separations that we have created through lashon hara that we may have spoken. They therefore cautioned us to be especially careful about lashon hara during the pandemic. Here is a facsimile of the letter written by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Bnai Brak in Israel, one of the holiest Jews in the world today.


It translates as follows. 

In the matter of catching the corona virus, each person should strengthen himself to be careful from lashon hara and gossip, as it says in the Talmud (quoted above by Rashi), “Since he divided with his lashon hara between a man and his wife or one Jew and his fellow, his fate is that he must sit alone.” And to strengthen oneself in humility and to forgo his honor as the commentary the “Rosh” said. The merit of these things will protect him and all the members of his family that none of them should get sick with the virus. Signed, Chaim Kanievsky

Perhaps it will help us to think of lashon hara as the corona virus. If only one infected person opened his mouth and spewed forth the virus, eventually, he could shut down the whole world. Similarly, one person spewing forth lashon hara can cause much hatred and division among the Jewish people and cause the Jewish nation to shut down. 

It is impossible for us to comprehend a society in which no lashon hara was spoken, and where, if spoken, would cause an immediate response with a blemish to serve as a warning to the perpetrator. What a great thing it would be if we could once again be lashon hara free. Following the instructions of the holy rabbi, this would be a very appropriate time to strengthen ourselves in proper speech, to avoid lashon hara as much as possible. The way to do this is to study the laws of lashon hara, as discussed by the Chofetz Chaim in his great book: Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day; The Concepts and Laws of Proper Speech. (Available at your local Hebrew book store or at Amazon.com.)

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