The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Leviticus 12:1-13:59 & 14:1-15:33
Evil Speech

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Each of the two portions that are the subject of today's commentary is considered a separate portion in its own right in the annual cycle of the fifty-three weekly portions of the Five Books of Moses. In some years each of these two is read on its own Sabbath. However in many years the Jewish lunar calendar requires the reading of both together, one after the other, on one and the same Sabbath (as happens in the case of a number of other "double" portions). The twinning of TAZRIA and METZORA is particularly justified since both are mainly devoted to the subject of TZORA'AT, "Biblical" leprosy.

I am calling TZORA'AT "Biblical" leprosy in order to distinguish this collective term for various kinds of morbid marks and patches that may appear on the skin, head, garments of wool or linen and even stone walls of houses from what today is normally considered "leprosy" i.e. Hansen's disease (so-named after the German physician Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, 1841-1912) , which if left untreated can cause permanent disfigurement and damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.

The external marks of Hansen's kind of leprosy on the head and body may or may not relate to those delineated in our portions as one of the main kinds of TZORA'AT as it afflicts the human body. This leads to the shunning of the leper as ritually impure, and he is literally cast out of the town. However, the fact that TZORA'AT may also take hold of a garment or the walls of houses indicates that the Biblical concept encompasses more kinds of afflictions than Hansen's disease alone.

In the rabbinic tradition TZORA'AT is seen as a Heaven-sent chastisement and a wake-up call to certain categories of sinners, in particular to one who is guilty of saying evil things about other people. At first the chastisement may manifest as a disturbing morbid bright red or green "mould" growing on a garment. If the sinner fails to repent so as to cause the growth to disappear, the next wake-up call may be sent to the very stone blocks of his house. The infected stones have to be ripped out in full public view and buried away from the town. If the person still does not repent, the feared patches of infected, lifeless or discolored skin may appear on his or her very head and body with all the accompanying embarrassment and social ostracization. The disfiguring blemishes that appear all over the METZORA ("leper") are a punishment, measure for measure, for his or her incessant disparagement and slander of other people. Now his or her own blemishes are horribly visible for all to see. Thus the Hebrew word METZORA has the same Hebrew consonant-letters as the words MOTZI-RA, which mean "one that brings forth evil", i.e. from his or her mouth in the form of evil speech.

The specific Biblical prohibition of evil speech is contained not in either of our present portions but later on in Leviticus 19:16: "Do not go around telling tales among your people.". It is also forbidden to accept slander (Exodus 23:1). The severity of the prohibition of evil speech is vividly illustrated in the case of Moses' older sister Miriam, who for a very minor infringement was immediately stricken with leprosy (Numbers 12:1). In order to inculcate in us a strong awareness of how terrible is the sin of evil speech, the Torah commands us to remember constantly how even the righteous Miriam was stricken because of her inappropriate words (Deuteronomy 24:9).

Evil speech is part of a nexus of interrelated sins in the way we humans may use our all-important faculty of speech - the gift that distinguishes us from all other species - for "death and life are in the hands of the tongue". The ultimate purpose of speech is for us to communicate and share words of truth, so that all humans will learn to call on the Name of One with one accord (Zephaniah 3:9). Among the various ways people may abuse their gift of speech, are:

Telling lies;

Bearing false witness;

Swearing false oaths;

Taking vows and making verbal undertakings, then violating or failing to fulfill them;

Talking directly to others in ways that are hurtful and insulting;

Talking ABOUT others - whether they are present or not - in ways that are disparaging and potentially harmful to them, even when what is said is TRUE!

It is permissible to tell someone in a discreet manner about flaws and criticisms relating to a particular person or persons, their behavior and traits etc. when this may be of benefit to the person in question or necessary for the welfare of others (as when confidentially providing someone with information they need in order to make a wise decision about a possible purchase, prospective partner, placement etc. in business or other areas of life).

What is specifically forbidden is the kind of malicious gossip about everyone and anyone that today knows no boundaries not only among family, friends and various social groups but particularly in the public arenas of politics, entertainment and the mass media.

The first to bring Evil Speech into the world was the primordial serpent, who cast aspersions on God Himself in contradicting His explicit warning to Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, accusing Him of being jealous of His creatures (Genesis 3:1-5).

Casting aspersions on other people through various kinds of unduly harsh judgments, criticism, disparaging remarks, slurs and slanders etc. is itself disparaging to God, since they are His creatures and His way is to judge everyone with kindness and mercy.

In the contemporary world the ancient subtle craft of the serpent is practiced with exceptional skill by the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines and via Internet, where the trials of all kinds of people ranging from suspected criminals to the most prominent celebrities, politicians, entertainers, sportsmen, other personalities, groups and even entire peoples and countries are conducted by slick media presenters through innuendoes and telling images and snippets of out-of-context footage without judge or jury or any possibility of appeal, fanning the flames of resentment, hatred and war.

Perhaps some kind of contemporary manifestation of TZORA'AT and other chastisements from heaven are visible in the mysterious ecological plagues and blights that afflict our vegetation, wildlife, livestock etc., the strange afflictions of various structures, buildings and private homes with all manner of faulty installations, and particularly the terrible chronic health problems and diseases that afflict so many, young and old, in our communities.

The outstanding modern rabbinic authority Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim (Lover of Life) from the words in Psalms 34:13, saw the sin of evil speech - malicious gossip and slander - as the worst sin of the present era, and he wrote guides to the rules of permitted and forbidden speech, emphasizing the great benefits that come from speaking properly and the terrible evils that stem from the opposite. For "he who guards his mouth guards his soul" (Proverbs 13:3).




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