Thursday, March 27, 2014

Parashat Tazria: Words Can Hurt You

Parashat Tazria: Words Can Hurt You
March 27, 2014

    Imagine a world where one’s words have direct physical consequence - not on the person at whom they are aimed, but on you, the speaker.  
    Parshat Tazria provides an alternate universe scenario where words can hurt you. The proof text is the story in Numbers 12 where Miriam and Aaron are standing around gossiping:  “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” The sentence is interesting for several reasons - Miriam is mentioned first instead of Aaron and the verb used is vatedabber, a feminine single verb indicating that Miriam is the primary speaker. They go on to complain that G-d is favoring Moses over the two of them. Sibling jealousy is not unusual. What was unusual was the result of the jealousy: tzara’at. Miriam was stricken all over with white scales as a result of her speech.
    In this week’s reading, we learn of the various types of tzara’at. We are given details of color, shape, size, location, frequency, duration, severity, and timing. We also learn that the kohen is the only person who can pronounce someone unclean and then clean again. One cannot and does not pronounce one’s own uncleanliness. 
    This seems fitting for a punishment that the rabbis feel is based on the “crime” of lashon hara (bad speech) and also rechilut (gossip). We often do not recognize our bad speech as such as it leaves our lips and even if we do, how often do we not care? In some ways this can be called an unseen crime because there is no tangible imprint left from words. One cannot measure a hurt feeling or a bruised heart. True, the results of a ruined reputation can be assessed, but rarely immediately nor in a way that is traceable back to the original source.
    We learn that G-d created the world with words. This teaches us that words have great power, both to create and to destroy.
    That’s an awesome responsibility of which parshat Tazria is a reminder. How do we balance our daily need to share information without talking badly about people? What do we do in our real world outside of parshat Tazria where instances of lashon hara are not greeted with visible punishment and affliction? Just as it takes 2 to tango it takes 2 to engage in lashon hara – a speaker and a listener. Ask the person to stop. Another option is called tokheha  (offering reproof). 
    Rabbi David Teutsch in his book A Guide to Jewish Practice: Ethics of Speech writes, “When there is a threat to a community’s moral life, each person has an obligation to address that threat. ... Doing tokheha, offering reproof, not only has a potential positive effect on the conduct of the person reproved; it also reminds the person offering the reproof not to emulate bad conduct." 
    To me, that’s what parshat Tazria is all about. The tzara’at is a physical manifestation of a behavior that threatens the ability of our people to live safely as a community. 
    A physical affliction would not “work” for us moderns – we understand that bad talk will not bring about sores on our bodies. Yet the parsha does provide interesting food for thought. 

Questions to discuss:
1. If it takes two to engage in Lashon Hara, why do you think only Miriam was afflicted with tzara’at?
2. Can you think of a situation where you would have to balance Lashon Hara with the need to speak the truth about someone?
3. How do you feel about the role of the kohen in this parsha?

Rabbah Arlene Berger is Education Director of the Chavurah at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Washington, DC.