Like Wildfire – Parshat Tazria Metzora 5773

Are you keeping up with any of the Kardashians? Or Lindsay?  Or Justin?  It’s difficult not to when the celebrity industry is everywhere from the doctor’s office in the form of Us Weekly in the waiting room to our living rooms on just about any evening news broadcast.

As a society, we’re addicted to gossip. Sometimes it’s harmless, like when TMZ tells us Britney Spears is headed home for Easter this year. Sometimes it’s not, like when rumors on social media escalate into cyber bullying.  Whether destructive or not, words that come out of our mouths or our keyboards can be excused, forgiven, or even deleted, but never taken back.

This week we read the double portions of Tazria and Metzora.  These Torah portions bring us the laws of purification, of both our bodies and our homes. The laws detail how to return to the community after an extended illness and how to rid community property of physical impurities.  One of the most frequently discussed laws found in these texts is that dealing with the metzora, the leper.  The Torah simply explains leprosy as an infectious and contagious disease, but our sages note the linguistic similarity in the Hebrew word for leperand the Hebrew for the one who gossips,“haMotzi Shem Ra.”  The sages believed leprosy to be a punishment for the sins of gossip because of how they both spread from person to person.

I’ll admit the linguistic connection is intriguing, but the sentence certainly seems harsh, doesn’t it?  A punishment like leprosy for the crime of gossip undoubtedly conveyed the weight of the sin.  A visible mark like leprosy would outwardly brand you as a person who no longer belonged inside the community.  Not only was the perpetrator infected, but he also had to be isolated for fear of spreading the infection and the behavior.

Today,while the punishment might not be quite as severe, gossip can be just as damaging, if not more so.  With a 24-hournews cycle and the power of social media, where things are often referred to as“viral,” ideas spread incredibly fast. Moreover, digital technology empowers us with a false sense of anonymity.  If you have to be confrontational, do you pick up the phone or send an email?  Combine the speed of communication with the feeling of being disconnected from the very message you’re sending, and it’s no wonder rumors get out of control.  What’s worse, we don’t realize what we’re saying or how our words impact others around us until it’s too late.

Tazria and Metzora remind us that gossip, like the ancient punishment thought to accompany it, leaves in its wake only pain and isolation.  And it isn’t just the direct victim who feels the effects, but those who hear our words as well.  That Facebook status update seems innocent enough, but without knowing it you’ve brought to light something not intended for public consumption.  Or adults might swap stories not thinking that children in the vicinity are paying attention,only to find out that the information has been absorbed, reengineered, and retold by much younger gossipers.

We’ve all heard the story of the man who spread rumors and was instructed by his rabbi to rip open a pillow, release the feathers into the wind, and then go retrieve them all.  Perhaps you have even demonstrated the effect of rumors to a child by squeezing toothpaste out of a tube and asking the child to put it back in the container.  Whether through a story, an experiential lesson, or a game of telephone, it’s important to be reminded of the impact of our words.  Our speech can be used for any number of purposes.  May this week’s parshiyotremind us to use it with care.

THIS TOO IS TORAH: Nineteenth century spiritual leader, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, noted that the laws of leprosy and gossip followed immediately after the dietary laws.  He suggested this teaches us to be as scrupulous about what comes out of our mouths as we are about what goes into them.

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