Parashat Metzora: The sickness of slander

‘The person who is leprous [Hebrew: tzarua] … the priest-kohen must declare him ritually impure… The leprous person who has the plague: his clothing must be torn, his hair must go wild and cover his face until his lips. “Ritually impure, ritually impure” he will call out…. This shall be the law of the leper [Heb.: metzora] on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the kohen-priest…”(L

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Continuing last week’s theme, our portion deals with discolorations of the skin, patches of white or red, the mysterious malady known in Hebrew as tzara’at, “For as long as the mark of this plague is upon [the individual], he shall be ritually impure; he must dwell in solitude, outside of the encampment of his dwelling” (Lev. 13:46).
The usual translation of tzara’at is leprosy, a dreadful and unseemly communicative affliction whose sufferers were exiled to isolated leper colonies far from the necessary comforts and amenities of normative societies. Most Bible readers understand the painstaking descriptions of detection, quarantine and eventual purification as the ancient Hebrew method of dealing with this dread disease.
Many of our Commentaries, however, reject such an interpretation, most notably Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, Germany, 1808-1888). Unlike the leprosy we know, the biblical tzara’at was a phenomenon limited to ancient Israel and only until the end of the First Commonwealth (586 BCE). Also the tzara’at discolorations affected not only human beings, but also garments and the walls of houses.
Moreover, the individual who was called upon to make decisions regarding the existence of the malady was not the medical expert as was to be expected, but the kohen-priest, the religious leader who did not necessarily have any training in anything but afflictions of the soul; and most surprising of all, there were no examinations for the determination of tzara’at by the kohen-priest during the busiest and most disease-susceptible place and time of the year, Jerusalem during the three pilgrim festivals of Succot, Passover and Shavuot. Every Jew at that time – regardless of their skin discolorations – was considered pure and worthy of ritual participation in Temple celebrations.
Hence, the malady in question must have been a religious malady, a malady of the soul, rather than a medical illness like leprosy.
Indeed, the Hebrew word metzora comprises two smaller words, “motzi ra,” one who speaks slander, evil things about others. The Talmud expresses this in a clear and succinct fashion (B.T. Arachin 15b).
“Resh Lakish said, what is the meaning of the verse ‘this shall be the Torah of the Metzora, this shall be the Torah of the one who expresses slander.’ What is unique about the metzora that the Torah ordains that ‘he shall dwell in solitude’? He (through his gossipy talk) divided a man from his wife, an individual from his friend; therefore the Torah ordains “isolated shall be his dwelling place.”
And so it was the task of the kohen-priest to warn the householders: If the walls of your home become discolored, repent of the slander you spoke around the table, and the walls will return to their natural colors; if the garments you wear become discolored, repent of the slander you spoke in public and then regain your garments; if your own skin becomes discolored, repent of every tale you told about someone else, whether it was true, but none of the business of your audience (rechilut); whether it was true but not complimentary to the perpetrator (lashon hara); and especially if it was not true and also painted a negative portrait of the individual you were discussing (motzi shem ra).
Allow me to add one more insight to explain the difficulty of ridding oneself of slanderous speech, to unmask the tantalizing “enjoyment” that one receives from gossip. Speaking slander is addictive, just like alcohol and drug abuse. Why do some of our youth resort to these things? Because they desperately want to feel good about themselves. They want to feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but they do not believe that they can find the resources to provide that gratification from within themselves; hence they must seek external stimuli to give them that “high” – and so they unfortunately get it by means of drink and drugs.
Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that every individual would like to excel, has the competitive urge to “get ahead” of the individual next to them. They can do this in one of two ways: either by studying harder, by giving more generously or by running faster than their friends – or they can do it by pushing their friends down, by spreading evil rumors about how their friends got their money or passed their tests. Each of us must attempt to understand their strengths and develop them – and thereby to find satisfaction and empowerment from within ourselves and from the portion of God within ourselves to help ourselves and the society around us. God forbid that we must resort to knocking others down in order to make ourselves feel good and productive.
Just look at the verses with which I opened this commentary, the biblical verse which describes the individual suffering from the malady of slander: His clothing is torn, his hair is wild and unruly (a poor self-image begets an unkempt external appearance), and he constantly calls out (about others, whom he is seeking to knock down), “ritually impure, ritually impure.” ■
Shabbat shalom
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.