Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 16, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Tazria-Metzora

These portions deal mainly with the subject of tzara’at which traditionally has been translated as leprosy. Scholars who have studied the matter have shown that the disease descried in the Torah does not match what we know as leprosy. Indeed, the disease which the Torah discusses can not only infect the skin of a person, but their clothes and even their house. This is no ordinary disease. The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash recognized a long time ago that this disease was not a physical ailment, but was a spiritual defect that manifested itself as a malady of the skin. The real cause of this “disease” was lashon hara – bad speech.  The connection between lashaon hara and tzara’at was made explicit in the case of Miriam who was afflicted with it after the incident in which she spoke in a deprecating way about Moses. (Numbers 12) Therefore, these portions which deal with tzara’at always present an opportunity to discuss the important topic of lashon hara.

       The sin of speaking in a negative way about someone is considered by Judaism as one of the most egregious transgressions. It is even compared to murder. This seems exaggerated, however, it is difficult to over-estimate the harm that can be caused by our speech when we talk about someone in a negative way. The harm is not limited to the one spoken about, but also affects the speaker and the listener. When we speak lashon hara, we internalize a negative view of the world. Constant criticism of others leads us to think in negative terms and to ignore the overwhelmingly positive attributes of the world around us.

       I could certainly go on discussing the problems inherent in negative speech, but, instead, I want to focus more broadly on the impact of words in Judaism. We can certainly do damage by speaking ill of someone or something, but we also have the power to use speech in positive ways that make our lives better.

       Judaism has an enormous respect for the power of words. Look at the mitzvahs that require speech. We recite the shema – the watchword of the Jewish faith – twice a day. The paragraphs of the shema contain the fundamental ideas of Judaism – monotheism and the obligation to observe the commandments – yet it is not sufficient to merely think about these ideas, we must voice them using the words contained within the Torah. One should not read the shema silently, it should actually be voiced so that we can hear ourselves reading the words. We are commanded to daven three times a day. Davening gives us the opportunity to speak with G-d, giving expression to our thoughts and needs. But we do so using specific words that tradition has endowed us with and here too we do not simply read silently, but we quietly give voice to the words. Before we eat anything, we utter a blessing prescribed by tradition, again uttered, not merely thought.

       I am always struck on the High Holidays by the enormous amount of words that we say in the course of these days. I have never counted them up, but clearly there are thousands and thousands of words that we say during the course of the services on these days. Some might argue there are too many words. In addition to the main elements of the service, there are many liturgical poems that form part of the services. All of these poems give expression to the ideas and emotions that are connected with these days.  It is as if we are searching to find the right words to come before G-d with on the day of Judgement and on the Day of Atonement. Again, it is not enough to think these ideas, they must be formulated into words and uttered.

       Judaism clearly acknowledges that words have the power to connect us to G-d. They can also connect us to other human beings. We need to see the power in the positive words that we could say to someone. Words of encouragement to a friend or family member could help them through a difficult time. A compliment paid to someone in our daily dealings with people could lift their spirits. And, most importantly, a word of gratitude – thank you – to someone who has benefited us would do them good and would do us good. Recognizing the many acts that are performed by others – be they family, friends, acquaintance, or merely people we encounter in our day to day activities – that make our lives better in small ways encourages us to see the positive in the world. It is the very opposite of lashon hara. Every time we say “thank you” we recognize the good that others do. Multiply that enough times and you’ll end up with a positive view of the world. This is the power of words!

Good Shabbos!!


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