This Week's Torah Portion: The Enormous Sin of ... Gossip? (Part 27)

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Mëtzora‘ (Leviticus XIV, 1-XV, 33)

Our parasha begins with: Zoth tihyeh torath hamëtzora‘ bëyom tohoratho (“This will be the Torah of the mëtzora‘ on the day of his purification”).

A mëtzora‘ is a person suffering from the condition known as tzora‘ath, whose parameters, diagnosis, and treatment were described in the second part of last week’s parasha. Diagnosis of the condition caused the sufferer to be quarantined from other people, including even fellow sufferers. Now, in this week’s parasha we begin with the procedure necessary for his reintegration into human society now that “the affliction of tzora‘ath has been healed from the afflicted one” (XIV, 3).

Tzora‘ath, often mistranslated as “leprosy” (its symptoms are most emphatically not those of Hansen’s disease), is a metaphysical or spiritual affliction which is brought on by the commission of any one of seven sins, the mostly commonly cited of which is called lëshon hara‘ (literally, “a tongue of evil”).

This is the sin of character assassination through relating negative or derogatory information — even if true — about one party to a third party who has no legitimate reason to know it. The term “character assassination” seems apt, since the Talmud (‘Arachin 15b) considers it tantamount to murder: a reputation, once so tarnished, can seldom ever be completely cleared.

The sin of lëshon hara‘ is especially pernicious because its commission requires the use of the faculty which makes us uniquely human. In Genesis II, 7 we read:

And [G-d] breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.

Onqëlos, in his First Century Aramaic paraphrase of the Biblical text, tells us of this “living soul” that it was a “speaking spirit,” and Rashi famously adds:

But this [soul] of man is liveliest of all, for knowledge and speech have been incorporated in it.

The speaker of lëshon hara‘ has thus debased his fundamental humanity. For this reason, it is not enough that the perpetrator merely repent sufficiently that the affliction be cured. The Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual fraught with symbolism to impress upon him the seriousness of what he has undergone. The intention is that he will think very carefully before indulging in it again.

As in many other places in the written Torah, our parasha introduces this passage as torath hamëtzora‘, “the mëtzora‘s Torah.” However, everywhere else this introduction reads simply, “This is the Torah of X” (cf. e.g. XIV, 32, 57 and XV, 32, all in our parasha). Only here, uniquely, do we find the seemingly superfluous word tihyeh, “will be.” Why?

The great 19th Century sage of Pressburg (modern Bratislava, Slovakia), Rabbi Moshe Sofér, known affectionately by the title of his magnum opus Chatham Sofér, notes both our question and the presence of the phrase “on the day of his purification” in our text. He answers by way of allusion to a passage in the Talmud (Këthubboth 77b) which relates that Rabbi Yëhoshua‘ ben Lévi sat down in close proximity to some sufferers to learn Torah with them:

“He said, It is written: ‘Gazelle of beloved one and doe of favor’ [ya‘alath chén]” (Proverbs V, 19); The Torah grants favor [he uses the phrase ma‘ala chén, a pun on the word ya‘ala, “doe”] to those who teach it, will I not be protected?”

Given its metaphysical or spiritual nature, tzora‘ath is not a contagious disease in the usual sense (though, of course, the associated tum’a could be passed on; cf. last week’s parasha for a discussion of the nature of tum’a). Nonetheless, the Torah dictates quarantine, because the habit of malicious gossip which has led to this condition is indeed “contagious.” One who has come to be afflicted with full-blown tzora‘ath has ignored earlier warnings (as we saw in last week’s parasha, from the first onset of symptoms the sufferer is instructed to consult a kohén who sequesters him for seven days, then another seven days, before declaring him a mëtzora’; during that time both of them are to pray to that it will not develop into the full-blown condition (cf. Leviticus XIII, 5, Sforno).

Plainly, the condition only develops if he truly deserves it; it until now he has not been sufficiently sensitive to heed these warnings. What assurance is there that this will bring him to recognize the seriousness of his addiction and deal with it?

The “cure” for the spiritually destructive and debilitating “disease” of lëshon hara‘ can only come about through the therapeutic powers of Torah. Through the study of applied Torah, a sort of spiritual engineering can be accomplished. The power of speech can be elevated and sanctified when it is used to study and teach Torah, the only way to overcome the debasement of that faculty brought about by its employment in lëshon hara‘.

 All of this the Chatham Sofér finds hinted in our introductory verse: “This,” he says, “is the man who engages in Torah in purity and teaches it to the mëtzora‘.” The hetter, the “permission” which Rabbi Yëhoshua‘ ben Lévi found to sit in close proximity to the mëtzorë‘im, lay in the purity of his intentions as a “soul doctor” to heal them of their spiritual malady and to return them to human society by learning with them. The Talmud’s account concludes by telling us that his nobility found Divine sanction “and he merited to enter alive into Paradise,” i.e., like Elijjah the prophet he was not made to suffer death.

We are now rapidly approaching the Passover season, and so it is perhaps of interest that this very theme of the debasement and redemption of speech may also be found in the Passover ritual.

Rabbi Moshe Yëchi’él haLévi Epstein, known throughout most of the 20th Century as the rebbe of Ozherov, writes in his encyclopedic work Ésh Dath (vol. X, p. 51) on the authority of the Zohar (II, 25a) that in exile in Egypt along with Israel was the power of speech.

The ethical and spiritual heritage of the Patriarchs had lost its “voice,” so to speak, during the 210-year long Egyptian sojourn, with a correspondingly sharp spiritual decline among their descendants. The Rebbe finds an allusion to this in the four letters which spell Par‘oh, “Pharaoh,” in Hebrew: they can be rearranged to form the words peh ra‘, “evil mouth.” Human speech had been greatly debased in the wanton and hedonistic atmosphere of ancient Egypt.

When Moshe was sent on his mission, this heritage again found its “voice,” in the Rebbe’s words:

When Israel left Egypt speech was also redeemed, and mouth was made fit to relate the praises of G-d, blessed is He.

Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov in his work Séfer haToda‘a (II, p. 54f.) brings home the relationship between the historical Exodus and the annual celebration of the liberation from Egypt. His words make clear the connection between Passover and the main topic of our parasha:

All year long we are told, “Say a little and do a lot” (Avoth I, 16), but on Passover we are told, “And you will relate … ” (Exodus XII, 8) and “the more one tells of the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy he is” (Haggada). Further, the Rabbis say that the name of this feast, Pesach, discloses the exaltedness of narration and conversation: Pesach is Peh Sach (“a speaking mouth”).

It is written in the Torah (Deuteronomy XVI, 31): “You will not eat with [the Paschal sacrifice] leaven, seven days you will eat with it matza, the bread of poverty [lechem ‘oni]’, and the Rabbis explained, ‘lechem ‘oni is bread upon which one answers [‘onim] many things’ (Pësachim 36a).

So long as there is leaven in the house, one is not allowed to celebrate Passover; when it is time to keep the commandment of Passover, one must remove the leaven from his house first.

One’s heart and soul are also classed as one’s “house and property”; so long as there is “leaven” in one’s heart, one swells with self-importance and becomes puffed up, such that his mouth does not match his heart … so that if he feels the need to rebuke his son, [the son] may ask in his heart, “How is Father in all these matters?”, and the father’s words may not be accepted.

But if one removes all “leaven” from one’s heart and cleanses his tongue of deceit and unworthy language, so that his heart is pure and true and his tongue clean, then “you will relate to your son,” and your son will listen, and “the more one tells of the Exodus from Egypt,” at that moment “the more praiseworthy he is.”

Therefore, the search for leaven is a preface and a pre-condition for the Peh Sach.

The affliction of tzora‘ath has been suspended during this long period without a Temple for many reasons, not least of which is the impossibility at present of performing a proper tahara (“purification”), but also because, in our present debased age, far too many of us have lost sight of the tremendous importance and greatness of every human being, so that the true enormity of the sin of lëshon hara‘ is lost to us.

Bearing the above in mind as we prepare for and celebrate Passover goes no little way toward restoring that balance.