Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell teaches: “God creates the world through speech, as we also create our own world through the power of our words.” Although parashat Metzorah seems to be about skin disease and household mold on the surface, our tradition has long held that it is really about the power of our words. In the Talmud we learn that the word metzorah is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase: motzi shem ra (“brings forth a bad name”). According to this interpretation, the external manifestations of the metzorah’s disease are a function of a deeper spiritual malady.
What is this malady?
The rabbis teach that every human being is born with a powerful weapon, and with the ability to chose whether to use it for good or for evil. That weapon is our tongue. Rabbi Jack Reimer writes:
“We use our tongues to create thousands of words every day, and every one of these words has the power to harm or to heal, to hurt or to help. Most of us do very little damage with our hands or with our feet. I can’t think of a single time during this last year when I have hurt anyone with my fists or with my feet. But if I am honest, I must admit that I have hurt people many times during this past year with my tongue.”
Part of the problem is that we do not always see the harm we cause with our words. Most of us, at least in theory, understand that the way we use our words can hurt another person’s feelings. We also understand that we can cause more than emotional harm with our words: we can affect someone’s livelihood or, if we testify falsely, can even help to send an innocent person to prison. Sometimes we are aware of the harm we cause, but more often we are not – especially when it comes to the scale and extent of the damage, and who we are hurting. This is where metzorah comes in. Why is the motzi shem ra, the one who brings for a bad name, covered with a clearly visiblescaly skin affliction? Because using malicious language not only harms others, but themselves. Perhaps I can tell when I have hurt another with my words, but am I aware that I am also hurting myself? When we belittle another human being, we damage a part of ourselves. The more we attack others verbally, the more broken we become. The metzorah is a living physical example of the harm we cause ourselves when we hurt others.
The same holds true for a house which has become infected with tzaraat, the malady of the metzorah. Here we see that not only does weaponized language hurt the person being spoken about, and the person speaking, but also those who hear the words. The environment itself becomes toxic, and if it can not be purified, must be destroyed.
Social media and the internet, with all the benefits they bring, have greatly exacerbated the weaponization of language, as have the growth of tribalism and political polarization. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is filled with tzaraat – but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can choose which kind of world we create.
Now more than ever I pray that we will heed the last words in the Amidah, and “guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile.”
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras