This week we will be reading from parashat metzorah. Like its parashatic-twin tazria, metzorah continues the conversation about ritual purity and impurity stemming from the skin ailment of tzara-at.
In their commentaries of metzorah, the rabbis demonstrate their particularly creative mindset. Their interpretation of the skin disease that causes one to become a metzorah, a leper, is based on an acrostic. According to the rabbis, metzorah comes from the root motzei shem rah, literally, one who brings forth a bad name. Or more generally, one becomes a metzorah by engaging in lashon ha-rah, wicked speech and/or gossip.
Their feeling that one who engages in lashon ha-rah is the equivalent of one who transgresses the entire Torah. The rational being that lashon ha-rah causes great harm to all those involved: the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the victim.
Because of this, there is a lot written about speech and the power of speech in Jewish tradition. It all starts with Beresheet, where God speaks, and the world comes into existence. According to this understanding, words have the power to create and words have the power to destroy.
According to the Talmud, during the time of the Second Temple, the Jews hated each other without cause. This hatred led them to speak lashon ha-rah against each other. The result was that the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were once again exiled because of the sin of lashon ha-rah. 1
Or to put it in a more modern understanding, trying to repair gossip is like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Once it is out there, it is out there. Therefore, even if we struggle with the deeper meanings of ritual purity and impurity, we all know the power and dangers of speech. This has only been exasperated with the ease of communication through email and social media. There are times where we share and write words that we would never consider doing in-person.
On this Shabbat, may we all be reminded to watch our words carefully. And to remember that once spoken or written, they can never be taken back. Words can create worlds. Words can also destroy them. Let us always aspire for more creation.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Babylonian Talmud Tracate Shabbat 56, Rashi