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Torah Sparks

April 12, 2008 – 7 Nisan 5768

Annual: Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 660; Hertz p. 470)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 14:1 – 32 (Etz Hayim p. 660; Hertz p. 470)
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3 - 20 (Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God gives Moses instructions for the rites of purification and the sacrifices that the m’tzora (person afflicted with tzara’at) must bring in order to complete the process of ritual purification. Provisions are made so that a poor person can bring less costly sacrifices.

God also tells Moses that once the people have settled in the land of Canaan a person may discover some sort of plague on the walls of his home. A priest must examine it; if he declares that the house is afflicted with tzara’at, the affected stones must be removed and replaced. If the tzara’at returns, the house must be demolished. If it does not return, the priest performs the specified ritual of purification.

Finally, God instructs Moses about the impurity resulting from discharges from the genital organs – both those discharges that are the result of disease and the normal discharges of semen and menstruation – and the process of purification for each.

1. Guard Your Tongue

This shall be the ritual for a leper [traditionally, this is the law of the m’tzora] at the time that he is to be purified. (Vayikra 14:2)

  1. This is the law of the m’tzora: This is the law of the motzi shem ra (Talmud Arakhin 15b). Nega’im come for the sin of lashon hara – slander. For the m’tzora to become clean, he needs a priest, the symbol of purity and the sanctity of the mouth and tongue, as it says (Malachi 2:7), For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and men seek rulings from his mouth. This teaches that a m’tzora cannot go to a doctor to be cured, but requires the pronouncement of a priest. Thus we are told (Nega’im 3:1), “The priest says ‘clean.’” As the pronouncement of the m’tzora results from the sins of the mouth, the Torah requires the healing to result from a pronouncement of the mouth, for “death and life are in the control of the tongue.” (Hafetz Hayim [Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, 1835-1933, Poland])
  2. Whoever indulges in gossip will be stricken with tzara’at … because gossip is worse than bloodshed. A person who commits manslaughter kills one person, but gossip kills three: the person repeating the gossip, the person listening to it, and the person about whom it is said. (Tanhuma M’tzora 2)
  3. Jews often treat the sin of lashon hara lightly, as if they don’t realize the tremendous power of the mouth. They don’t understand the harm that lashon hara can cause. After all, they think to themselves, “What have I done? All I did was say a few words. Big deal!” The person therefore is brought to the priest and there he sees that it is the words of the priest that determine his fate – whether he will be considered clean or unclean. He realizes what power words do indeed have. “Death and life are in the control of the tongue.” (Rabbi Joseph ben Wolf Kranz, known as the Maggid of Dubno, 1740-1804, Poland)
  4. Don’t speak well of your friend, for although you will start with his good traits, the discussion might turn to his bad traits. (Baba Batra 164b)
  5. Gossip is cathartic, empowering, and comforting... one of the great luxuries of democracy. It is the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and free expression... It makes you interesting and boosts your self esteem at having it to relate. (Liz Smith, syndicated gossip columnist)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbis understand tzara’at not as an ordinary disease but as punishment for a sin, specifically for the sin of lashon hara. The usual translation – slander – is misleading, because in American law slander refers only to spreading negative information that is false. Lashon hara refers to spreading any negative information about another person, either true or false.

The passage from the Tanhuma is only one of many examples of how seriously the rabbis regard the sin of lashon hara. Why do you think they do so? After all, as children we all learned, “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me.” Do you think lashon hara is a problem in your community? What impact does it have? How has the internet changed the nature of lashon hara?

Liz Smith reminds us why it is so hard to avoid lashon hara. Still, if we cannot eliminate it we certainly can reduce it. What strategies can you think of to avoid speaking or listening to lashon hara?

2. Walk a Mile in My Shoes

The priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection. (Vayikra 14:3)

  1. Why does the priest have to go forth out of the camp? Rather, the priest is the righteous one, the leader of the generation, and to him even a small sin appears enormous. But God wants the leaders to give the people the benefit of the doubt, and they should realize that had they needed to earn their living, they, too, might have sinned. Thus the Torah tells us that the priest must go forth out of the camp – he has to put himself in the place of the sinner, outside the priest’s own camp, and in that of people who have to earn their living – and it is then that the priest will see that the tzara’at will be healed. (Si’ah HaSadeh)
  2. Joshua ben Perahyah taught: When you assess people, tip the balance in their favor. (Avot 1:6)
  3. Our masters taught: He who judges his fellow man on the scale of merit is himself judged favorably. (Shabbat 127b)
  4. Rabbi Reuben ben Itztrobilei said: A person does not incur suspicion unless he has done [what he is suspected of]; or if he did not do all of it, he did part of it; or if he did not do part of it, he yearned to do it; or if he did not yearn in his heart to do it, he saw others do it and was happy. (Moed Katan 18b)
  5. In Jerusalem there is a group that regularly discusses practical ways to judge people favorably. A member of the group gives true-to-life situations, and everyone else offers explanations that would present the person involved in a favorable light. For instance: You didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding:
    1. Perhaps the person was under the impression that he had already sent you an invitation.
    2. Perhaps he sent you an invitation and it was lost in the mail.
    3. Perhaps he can’t afford to invite many people.
    By judging someone favorably, even if your assumption is wrong, you still fulfill a Torah commandment. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, p. 261)

Sparks for Discussion

Si’ah HaSadeh says that God wants community leaders (and by extension, all of us) to give the people the benefit of the doubt. Too often we interpret other people’s behavior in the most negative way possible and ignore innocent explanations. Why do you think people tend to think the worst of others? How does this affect a community? Has someone ever accused you of doing something wrong when you were innocent? How did you handle the situation? What do you think of Rabbi Reuben ben Itztrobilei’s claim thatwhere there’s smoke there must be fire? What do you think of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s approach?

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