This year Parashot Tazria and Metzorah are separated so we can learn more than we ever wanted to know about how the Kohanim helped people cope with infectious disease and illness. Probably because it was so prevalent in the ancient Near East, Tzara’at, commonly called leprosy is the focus of this weeks Torah portion as well as last week’s. The disease is dealt with cautiously since it was highly contagious. But the Tzara’at was not only seen as a serious physical malady that could spread throughout the community if left unchecked, it was also viewed as an external sign of internal decay both in the individual as well as the community. This is why the portion ends, You shall put the Children of Israel on guard against their ritual impurity, so they will not die through their impurity by defiling my Mishkan (Tabernacle) which is among them.” (Leviticus 15:31)
To make the link between illness and the lapse of ethics the rabbis of old often site the punishment of Miriam for speaking ill of Moses’ wife for being a Cushite, a modern day Ethiopian. Miraim is striken with tzara’at, which leaves her skin white and flaky. Since the malady comes as the result of her critical speech a connection is made between the two. It is interesting though how the punishment fits the crime so to speak. Miriam’s criticizes Tziporah for her otherness. She more than likely has a dark complexion; it is even likely that she is black. How apropos that Miriam’s punishment for the chiding, though temporary is to be made excessively white. In any event it becomes clear that the Holy One is non-plussed by destructive and slanderous speech.
One Midrash goes so far as to say that the reason a person with Tzara’at was to sacrifice two birds (Leviticus 14:4) is because the birds loud chirping would remind the Metzora that inappropriate speech was the cause of their maladies.
Midrash Rabbah Vayikra understands the law of tzara’at as an allusion to seven traits that Hashem hates: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet that run eagerly toward evil, a false witness, and one who sows discord.
Three of the seven speak directly of speech patterns, and the others can be easily connected. Speaking and thinking ill of another person, construing their actions in the worse possible way, gossiping, and spreading rumors that hurt the reputation of another person are activities that are so familiar to us that they barely ever attract any attention. Yet they strike at the core of the world that Hashem desires to use Israel to build. These patterns provoke a cynical disregard of human decency; they cultivate our suspicion of each other and our anxiety that others are speaking ill of us behind our backs just as we are of them. In Hebrew this kind of speech is called l’shon hara (lit. an evil tongue).
Sometimes L’shon hara can even lead to actual death. Let’s consider the tragic story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. In 1804 Alexander Hamilton was the former United States Secretary of the Treasury and Aaron Burr was the sitting Vice President. As a result of hostilities between their political parties, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists respectively, the two men had a history of hostility going back to 1791. Throughout the two decades Hamilton had used rumors, innuendo and leaked information to the press in an attempt to hinder Burr’s political career. Finally in 1804 as a direct result to Hamilton’s rumor mill Thomas Jefferson was forced to drop Burr as his running mate for re-election. A series of insults subsequently flew between the two men in the form of public statements and private letters that were leaked and published in the newspapers. Finally as a result on July 11, 1804 in a duel at Weehawken, NJ Hamilton was mortally wounded by Burr and would succumb to the injury the next day. Ironically Hamilton’s son Phillip had died in a similar duel a few years earlier after having been accused publicly of behaving like a “hooligan.” Aaron Burr was pushed out of politics and died a broken isolated man. Apparently words do kill!
It feels like some things never change. The difference of course is that today TV pundints and radio talk show hosts can spread the vitriol to tens of millions, hours a day, every day as a result of electronic media. Media profiteers can create bubbles of misinformation and hatred that then continue to proliferate over unchecked sources and multiply the rage throughout cyberspace. Is it any wonder then that U.S Congress woman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with 19 others in an Arizona Supermarket parking lot this past January. It is easy to dismiss the heinous act as the work of one mentally ill person, except the real culprits, the purveyors of hatred continue to ply their trade.
Though these make for poignant examples the incidents of l’shon hara leading to death do not end at the boundaries of the political arena. Over the past year a 17-year-old girl from West Islip Long Island committed suicide as the result of cyber bullying. So did a quiet, attractive daughter of Irish immigrants in South Hadley Mass who hung herself rather than spend one more day enduring the inexplicable wrath of some of her jealous classmates. Nine other minors face criminal charges and will have their lives forever altered before they really get started. These are but two examples out of many cases of teen suicides due to l’shon hara. This doesn’t take into account the undocumented deaths and the potentially hundreds of thousands of ruined lives as the result of the confluence of human nature and increased opportunity for verbal sin due to technology.
Perhaps then the solution to a relatively new problem is an age-old solution. A marvelous tale tells of a wandering merchant who came into a town square selling the elixir of life off of his peddler’s wagon. Large crowds would gather to purchase the secret to eternal youth. When pressed the merchant would take out the Sefer Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and would read the following verse, “Who desires life? Keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from speaking guile.” (Psalm 34:13-14)
We all need to commit ourselves to a language of responsibility, kindness and compassion. Rather than spreading rumors to make others look bad we need to use empathic imaginations to try to understand why another person might have acted in a certain way. Rather than speaking behind other’s backs we need to speak to them and with them, creating a shared community of growth and health. A trusting community rooted in goodwill and integrity is what will establish “Hashem’s rule on Earth.”