Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
If we knew with certainty, with absolute certainty, that we could 100% guarantee that our health would be protected if we aligned ourselves with certain behaviors, we would do them, right? We would eat right, we would exercise. If there was a guarantee, we would never deviate. It would be easy to stay healthy. Sadly, as we know, there are no guarantees. People who never picked up a single cigarette still get lung cancer. Marathon runners die of heart failure. It’s a mystery.
It’s a mystery that our ancestors struggled with in this week’s double portion, Tazria/Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33). Why, they wondered, were some people afflicted with a skin eruption that we erroneously translate as leprosy? In this parashah we see the priest in his role as medicine man. When an individual experiences the outbreak of some kind of rash, Aaron is to carefully investigate. No hearsay allowed! Various criteria for diagnosis are established, and the individual is placed in quarantine until the disease abates.
The metzora, the afflicted one, then performs a specified ritual and is allowed to re-join the community. The rabbis struggled to understand why someone would have to endure this illness. As so many of us do, they blamed the victim. Since they could not accept the essential randomness of suffering, they noticed the similarity in sound between “metzora,” the patient, and “motzi shem ra,” to give someone a bad name. Skin afflictions, then, were understood as a punishment for gossip. (BT Arachin 15b)
It is never okay to blame a person in pain for bringing it on themselves. We wish, we would love to believe, that people are always the victims of their own poor choices. If only that were true, we would be safe. The metzora did nothing wrong. Yet, this Torah portion invites us to reflect on the deep and enduring hurt we cause each other by our thoughtless use of words. Every single one of us carries within us the soul pain of careless words. Once our words are launched, we can never reclaim them. They live forever. And, in a digital age, exponentially more so. The Talmud teaches us that if we embarrass a person in public, it is the equivalent of murder. (Baba Metzia 58b)
The Hebrew word for “word” is “davar.” Davar can mean a word or a thing. This nuance of the language underlines the tangible reality of our words. As God creates the world through the act of speaking, so we create, and destroy, our world by the words we use.
And—gossip is so much fun! It’s so tempting. It’s not for naught that at least a third of the 44 sins we recall in the Al Cheyt on Yom Kippur have to do with sins of speech. We may not all steal and surely we don’t all murder, but lashon ha-ra (gossip)? Guilty as charged. We can’t wait to share whatever juicy tidbit comes our way.
As we read Parashat Tazria/Metzora, we have an opportunity to reflect on how we can use our words to uplift or to destroy, to renew our commitment to think, deeply, before we speak. As the Baal Shem Tov taught: “A person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies.” Imagine this teaching is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to death. The next time you are about to speak, ask yourself: “Is it worth dying for this word?”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell served for nearly four decades as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain, retiring in 2016. She is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ, where she also directs the Deutsch Family Shalom Center. Rabbi Koppell is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.