Tazria-Metzora: A society without gossip

A person’s healthy spirit influences and benefits his body, while a person in a depressed emotional state has poorer chances of recovery.

Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
The leprosy disease which appears in our parasha may slightly mislead the reader.
Many of the biblical scholars who looked at this parasha from the perspective of the world of terminology in which they lived understood that the Torah is proposing a way of dealing with a contagious disease (such as Hansen’s disease) by isolating the afflicted and making sure he is not near other people so they do not catch his illness.
However, preeminent commentators concluded from perusing the Jewish laws pertaining to leprosy that this interpretation is not possible. Without getting into their evidence, we will note that Halacha states that a man who was discovered to have leprosy during the mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Jewish holidays had his quarantine postponed until after the holidays, despite the fact that in those days many people crowding into Jerusalem could have caught the illness. Another Halacha, which limits the laws of leprosy to Jews only, versus a person who is not part of the Jewish nation and is not sent to isolation even if he shows signs of leprosy, shows that we must not be discussing a contagious disease as we know it.
What, therefore, is this biblical leprosy, and what is the meaning behind the manner of dealing with it that the Torah proposes – by isolating the leper for a week or two? Currently, there is much research being done on the interplay between the soul of a person and his body. For example, the use of medical clowns has been more and more common lately in the process of recovery from serious illnesses.
This is because a person’s healthy spirit influences and benefits his body, while a person in a depressed emotional state has poorer chances of recovery.
Biblical leprosy refers to an extreme case of a person lacking in interpersonal relationships, which causes the appearance of the skin disease and the special way of dealing with it.
The disease of leprosy, the Torah teaches us, appears in direct connection with the sin of lashon hara. As opposed to what many think, slander is not necessarily a false rumor spread about a specific person. Even if a true and founded rumor is included in the slander, it is forbidden to be said if it is not for a beneficial purpose.
So the question here is: Why? If a person indeed behaved inappropriately, why not say so? Since it is the truth! A wellknown story is brought in the Talmud of a man who came before one of the great sages, Hillel, with an odd request: “I am interested in joining the Jewish nation and converting.
But I will do so on condition that you, Hillel, teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” No less! Hillel did not respond that this was impossible since Torah was a wide subject requiring many years of study. He agreed to the condition and told him a short statement that epitomizes the moral approach of the Torah, “That which you hate – do not do to your friend.” This is the central principle of the Torah as defined by Hillel.
Based on this basic statement, we can understand the reason why it is forbidden to say lashon hara even when the story is true. Every person has occasions when he behaves in a way which does not fit with the moral principles he believes in. Sometimes one fails in telling the truth, another fails in another sin, and there could be someone who behaves inappropriately to his family. And here, everyone should stop and think: Would I want people to know about my behavior? Would I want it to become public knowledge that I occasionally fail? Obviously, the answer would be no.
And is it appropriate for me to do to another what I am so not interested in having done to me?! A proper society is one in which people are not busy judging each other, but are looking into themselves in an attempt to improve their own morals.
Dealing in gossip is cheap. It destroys the person when he is busy with the sins of others instead of with attempts to fix himself. Society then loses the reliability and solidarity so necessary for the creation of a good society in which it is pleasant to live.
The biblical leper is a person whose main occupation is judging others and speaking of their drawbacks. Such a person whose soul is so damaged causes his body to break out in the “leprosy” that comes as a result of the interplay between body and soul. This disease appears as a result of his internal illness and is evidence of the moral and spiritual corruption of a man who has nothing in his life other than dealing in gossip and slander, and therefore his body gets sick.
The Torah deals with it exactly on this plane – isolation.
The man who has leprosy appear on his body is sent to isolation of a week or two. During this time, when he misses the human society to which he is accustomed, he has the opportunity to look at the spiritual needs of a man in a proper society. During these days, he will learn how a man feels when society has turned its back on him and he is socially isolated as a result of stories of slander publicized about him.
After this short isolation, the leper returns to society full of moral insights, and will join the effort to build a proper and healthy society in which gossip is not accepted as a legitimate phenomenon, and every person in society is busy in improving his own moral state and not in snooping through the sins of his friends.Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.