Parashat Metzora

Sensitivity To Speech

Rabbinic interpreters regarded leprosy as punishment for the sin of careless speech.

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Rabbi Yannai, then said, "All my life I have been reading this passage, but did not know how to explain it until this peddler came and made it clear to me. Now I see that the same idea is also expressed by King Solomon, who proclaimed in a proverb, "He who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble." (Proverbs 21:33).

Who are they who desire life? They who keep their tongues from evil. The one who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble.

When we look at the historical setting of this story, in Palestine in the early third century, we can see that this story is not just a simple little moral tale. The land of Israel at this time was in turmoil. There were revolts and insurrections against the Roman conquerors. Roman spies and informers were everywhere, constantly on the watch for clues of rebellion.

The peddler, in his surreptitious manner, was passing the word that everyone should be wary of what they say. In a good Jewish manner he was passing the word: loose lips sink ships. Rabbi Yannai, by responding with his own remarks, indicated his support for this clandestine effort. He reiterated the message: those who desire life, those who want to survive these oppressive times, should watch their words.

It is interesting though to see the context in which this midrashic story is presented (Vayikra Rabba 16). It is presented in a commentary on the laws of Tzaraat, which are presented in our Torah reading this week. The laws of the Metzora have long been the basis for numerous rabbinic homilies against the spread of lashon ha-ra--literally "evil speech" or gossip. Metzora, the rabbis conjectured, sounded just like motzi-ra--the bringing forth of evil with the mouth. Cause and effect: if one is guilty of lashon ha-ra, one will be afflicted by tzaraat and thus becomes a Metzora.

But the Torah tells us that tzaraat is not a permanent condition. One can become healthy again. Neither the condition, nor the sin that precipitated it, is hopeless. There is always the possibility of Teshuva--expiation for one's misdeed--and a process by which the unclean Metzora could again become pure and rejoin the community. This process always exists for us, no matter what our sin.

Dvar Aher

Also implicit in this verse is the thought that the Metzora, even while he is still outside the camp, should be impelled by his own free will to repent and come to the priest in order to be cleansed. It is only in response to his personal resolve to become pure that he should be taken to the priest and thus brought closer to the state of purity.

Only after the Metzora has decided to take positive action leading to repentance and purity, shall "the priest go forth out of the camp" to cleanse him. People must rise to actions themselves before they can expect action from above. (Shem MiShmuel)

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.