Tazria 5782 (Shabbat HaChodesh)
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Once, a friend who is a Methodist minister asked me how I would handle a crisis of faith so deep that it would challenge my commitment to Judaism. I remember thinking for a while before answering his question with another question, which is what rabbis do. “Do you mean,” I replied, “would I go out and eat a double-bacon cheeseburger?”
This was not the answer he expected, and he practically sputtered when I continued: “I don’t know. Probably not.”
While my answer could not have been further removed from his faith, it cut to the core of my own spiritual truth.
Faith and spirituality are among those words, like “justice,” which we use often and yet often mean different things to different people. This week, we get an unusual window into understanding the Torah’s definition of spirituality.
According to Jewish tradition, real spirituality is about how to navigate the messiness of real life, and in Tazria, the Torah exposes us to some real messiness:
This week’s Torah portion is about the uncontrolled flow of blood during childbirth, and a strange skin disease called tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. I know. These are the first things you think of when you think of the word “spiritual.” Yet, this is exactly where the Torah goes:
If a man has in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or a bright spot, and it is in the skin of his flesh like the plague of tzara’at; then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. [Lev. 13:2]
The rabbis traditionally interpret tzara’at to be a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease – which would explain why the priest would be called. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, offered a deep insight about tzara’at. He taught:
In the previous parasha, Shemini, the Torah lists the various types of animals and birds that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten. Here, we have the law of tzara’at, which, according to our Sages (Arakhin 15) afflicts a person who was guilty of lashon hara – slander. The reason for this juxtaposition is because people are more concerned about not eating non-kosher food than they are about “eating up” a person through slander. Thus, we learn from the juxtaposition that “eating up” a person is no less a sin than eating a worm.1
Our tradition takes a dim view of gossip and slander, and according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 1) lashon hara is in the same category as murder. However, unlike murder, where the violence and suffering caused by the act are obvious, gossip and slander are “stealth sins.” We do not see the harm we are causing, and often, do not think there is any harm at all to a “little gossip.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Rav Nachman of Bratslav taught: “But how can you say, ‘It was only talk, so no harm was done?’ If that were true, then your prayers, and your words of kindness would be a waste of breath.”
What we say matters, and what we hear affects how we think of others.
We read in the Talmud, “The person who speaks slander harms three people: the person they slander, the person to whom the slander is uttered, and themselves.” [Talmud Bavli, Arakin, 15b] Words can lift us up, or bring us down. When words are weaponized, intentionally or not, they can eat us up from the inside out – just as Rabbi Salanter taught. Lashon hara is indeed a disease of the spirit, and if left unchecked, will utterly consume our every waking minute. At their worst, gossip and slander can destroy life. Whether we consider the toxicity of our current political climate, teen suicides caused by online bullying, or how the language of hate made the Holocaust possible, the power of the spoken word to cause harm is impossible to ignore.
It may be easier now to understand why the rabbis saw tzara’at (the skin disease from our portion) as an outward physical manifestation of the ongoing spiritual harm caused by lashon hara. Anyone who shares or takes words of gossip to heart is spiritually damaged by the act and needs to be made whole again.
We no longer have the priests to help us, nor easy-to-recognize physical signs of our inner spiritual brokenness, yet we can still learn from this passage. We can be priests to each other, and to ourselves. And together we can act with great spiritual strength and choose not to take part when those around us gossip.