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.  


  1. I try never to say evil against anyone, but...

    I was challenged by my ex-husband, who, when we divorced, I decided that, even if we weren't suited to one another as husband and wife, I wanted to be sure to support his value as the father of our daughter, having suffered myself as the daughter of a divorce where my own mother couldn't speak kindly of my father, beyond her bitter remembrance. And I spoke up my ex to my daughter.

    But, he didn't live up to my propagandizing of him!!

    After a few years of our separation, I realized that I was being hypocritical in representing him as a good father to her - his deficiencies as a husband resonated in his deficiencies as a father to her. And I realized that it was hypocritical of me to support the fiction of his role as the "good father" to our daughter.

    And, I ended up being honest with her. It hurt me to admit that he wasn't what I wanted him to be for her. I know that it was a repercussion of my own hurt of my mother's animus against my father, which prevented her from allowing me to have my own relationship with him. But, we can't always project our expectations on our kids, can we?

    And, I ask, how does this resonate with this Torah portion?

  2. Question #2 strikes to the core for me (at least, right now)...My parents divorced when I was 10, and were separated for about three years before that, and my mother was never able to speak a kind word about my father. I knew he was a loving dad, and I knew that he didn't do so well as a husband to my mother, but my mother was never able to see beyond her hurt. When I divorced from my first husband, I was determined to do all that I could to foster my daughter's ongoing positive relationship with her dad, and I was determined to not speak badly of him.

    But, then he proceeded to challenge my efforts to talk him up by continually disappointing her, and devaluing her. After a couple of years, I realized that my speech about him was not matching her experience of him. My efforts to try and stay positive about him were disrepecting her own personal experience. So, I started speaking to her more honestly about my opinion of his behavior to her, and how his values didn't match mine.

    She has a good relationship with him, but her eyes are open (as I'm sure her eyes are open to the faults of her mother!!).

    So, was that Lashon Hara?? was it appropriate?

    1. Janaki, as always, thank you for your honesty and your openness. Instead of asking and labeling what was said or not said as Lashon Hara, why don't we look at what you were doing. You were (and to this day still are) trying to be the best parent that you could/can be. To do that you realized that you needed to be as honest as you could with your daughter in order to help her understand the reality of her life with her father. The ideal way to do that would be to speak about him as little as possible, but always as truthfully as possible - always balancing what you are saying with the situation at hand. Sounds like you ultimately got there. We are human, we do, we experience, we learn. Sounds like you did just fine.