This week’s parashah is Metzora. In this parashah we continue the laws concerning the person with tzara’at (skin afflictions). We were informed in the last parashah, Tazria, that the person suffering from skin afflictions (commonly but inaccurately translated as leprosy) is to be kept separated from the camp until the priest has determined that s/he is healed. The person is considered ritually impure and in danger of contaminating the camp both physically and spiritually. The Torah does not distinguish physical illness as separate from the religious realm. Tzara’at is viewed as a punishment from God for sin, and so the priest, as the person in charge of the religious realm, must oversee the person’s isolation and reintegration into society.
In a classic interpretation of this week’s parashah, the word “metzora”, (the one afflicted with tzara’at), is read by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra, the one who brings forth an evil name. In other words, one who slanders or gossips is punished with this affliction. If this were indeed the case then I would venture to say that many, if not all, of us would be walking around with some degree of skin affliction at various times. However, Jewish tradition takes gossip very seriously. The Talmud teaches that to slander or embarrass someone in public is like shedding a person’s blood. And so the rabbis believed that slander and gossip deserved a severe punishment that included not only the skin affliction, but the subsequent separation from the community.
In his commentary on this parashah, the Hassidic commentary Sefat Emet focuses on the opening verse of the parashah that states “this is the teaching about (in Hebrew, torat) the afflicted person.” He states that the Torah teaches “Peace, peace, to the far and to the near” (Isaiah 57:19) and that the “far” person refers to the afflicted person separated from the community.
In his insightful commentary, the Sefat Emet states that causing the person to be far from the community and far from God serves two purposes. It is itself the punishment, but at the same time it is the means of bringing healing — bringing shalom, “peace” or “wholeness”. He reminds us that the Midrash teaches that though a human being is wounded by a knife and healed by a bandage, God is able to heal through the same means by which God wounds. God “commands” in this parashah that the person be separated and kept far from others. This separation is a punishment that eventually brings about healing and purification. Being separated from the community and from God enables the one who gossips to think about the effects of his/her actions and to work on changing. Like a person who goes on a silent retreat or a trek in the desert, that person finds him/herself and God in the silence and the separation.
In his gloss on the Sefat Emet, Arthur Green comments that one of the ills of modernity is the separation from God (and I would add the concurrent separation, for many, from a true sense of community). He then argues that this separation can also be seen as the impetus for healing and bring oneself closer to God (and community). Our speech is one way by which we separate ourselves from God and from others. Speaking ill of someone, or simply wasting so much of our time talking about others rather than focusing on meaningful speech, causes a gulf to widen between us and God, as well as community. It also separates us from our true selves.
In the season of freedom (z’man heiruteinu), let us free ourselves from the chains of gossip and hurtful speech. Let us each assess how far we have placed ourselves from God, community and self through our speech, as well as other deeds. Let us then use the sense of separation as the impetus to bring us closer to one another and to God, and ultimately back to our truest selves.