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Metzora- The Power of Words

Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33 Mark Twain wrote, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” It’s no wonder that 25 percent of the sins that we confess on Yom Kippur have to do with the use of words! While most of us manage to avoid committing murder, it is the rare person who can get through even one day without gossiping. The Internet has exponentially increased the prevalence of what our tradition calls “motzi shem ra (putting forth a bad name).” Not a day goes by that yet another person does not see their life destroyed by malicious gossip. Proverbs 18:21 suggests that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” Cyber-bullying is the contemporary manifestation of this ancient teaching.

Parshat Metzora describes the procedures for responding to various skin ailments. The metzora is the person who is afflicted with what is incorrectly translated as leprosy. The rabbis note the similarity between the words motzi shem ra and metzora. They conclude: “If you wish to avoid being afflicted with tzara’at, do not speak lashon ha-ra” (Sifrei, quoted by Rashi to Deuteronomy 24:9).

While we decry the “blame the victim” attitude reflected in this statement, we do recognize the impact of our behavior on our own spiritual well-being as well as the health of our community.

Without a medical understanding of disease, the ancient Israelites observed that certain illnesses were contagious. Therefore, the person afflicted with tzara’at was isolated from others. Gossip has that same power to poison us from within and infect society. Gossip is an available temptation to each of us on a daily basis. If we truly wish to live lives of holiness, we must let go of judging others in favor of focusing on our own behavior. We must avoid causing pain to others through our use of words at all costs, and never make statements that require us to turn around and see who might be listening.

God creates the world through speech, as we also create our own world through the power of our words. The word d’var in Hebrew means both word and thing. We recognize the tangible nature of our language. Once our words are launched, they take on a life of their own. So powerful are our words, that we are not only prohibited from speaking negatively about other people, but we also should not defame an animal! Rabbi Israel Salanter reminded us: “Not everything that is thought should be said. And not everything that is said should be repeated. And not everything that is repeated should be remembered.” The rabbis note that the tongue is created in a horizontal position to remind us that its natural state is to be at rest (BT Arachin 15b).

“There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty. And the crown of a good name exceeds them all” (Pirke Avot 4:17). We all treasure our good name, our shem tov. Our reputation precedes us throughout our lives, and when it is gone so is the possibility of future relationships. We are cut off from friends and community. Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan was indicted by the Bronx, New York, district attorney, charged with grand larceny and falsifying documents in connection with work that his former company did with the New York Transit Authority. Two and a half years later, after he was acquitted of all charges, he remarked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

As we reflect this week on the isolation of the metzora, let us renew our commitment to, in the words of the Amidah, “guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile.” first appeared in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is a spiritual leader at Temple Chai.

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