By Rabbi Linda Holtzman
Metzora is a strange and complicated Torah portion. Mostly, it’s about skin disease and the sacrifices and times of separation from the community that were seen as necessary to cure the disease.
For b’nai mitzvah students, it’s a struggle. What could possibly interest them in this obscure and challenging section of Leviticus? How does it make any sense?
Yet, Metzora has always been significant for me, and I’ve led b’nai mitzvah students through fascinating discussions about it.
The first question students often ask is why. Why is there so much focus on skin disease? And why did people think that sacrifices could eliminate it?
In fact, the ancient rabbis asked the same question. For the rabbis, the skin disease of Metzora was much more than a physical disease. It represented spiritual disease; for someone to suffer from this disease, there had to be something deeper wrong — something that emanated from their mind and heart.
So a physical cure alone would never be enough. Instead, a multilevel, spiritual cure was needed. The impurity of this skin disease, called tzara’at, ran deep and needed to be reached at every level.
The rabbis looked for reasons that people might suffer from tzara’at and concluded that lashon harah, evil speech about others, gossip of any sort, must be at the root of this disease. After all, when Moses’ sister Miriam contracts tzara’at, it is attributed to her gossiping about Moses and his wife, Tziporah.
Yet recent feminists have questioned this interpretation. It’s strange that while both Miriam and Aaron are talking about Moses, only Miriam contracts the disease. Gossip is seen as evil, some say, because it was the speech of women.
Yet, while we see so many examples of the hurt caused by talking about others, we can see that talking about other people in and of itself is not evil. It causes no disease and no spiritual impurity. In fact, there are times when talking about others is helpful, productive, even life-saving.
The #MeToo movement is a prime example of talking about others with important results. In fact, it emerges from another Jewish tradition that is essential in our lives. If we see someone hurting another or experience someone hurting themself or hurting us, it is imperative that we let them know about it.
Tochecha, the requirement that we do not let immoral or unethical acts go by without speaking out and attempting to stop the actions and holding the perpetrators accountable, demands that we talk to and, if necessary, about others. We cannot allow serious misconduct to continue, even if it takes public shaming, an act usually avoided at all costs, to stop it.
Speaking out when necessary can not only change someone’s behavior, but can give others the strength to speak out as well. We’ve seen this with #MeToo as well. Yet is there no time that lashon harah is to be avoided? Of course there is. And Metzora reminds to respond when lashon harah really is harmful, really is hurtful and really is malicious speech to be avoided. The key is in the Torah portion itself.
In Metzora, we are taught to look closely for the signs of disease, to be thorough in our analysis and to pay careful attention to the nature of the disease. Note the color of the skin rash and the parts of the body it covers; note the color of patches on the walls of one’s house; pay attention to every detail.
The same is true with speech: Note the reason for one’s speech, the effect it will have on others, the need for the speech. And then determine whether the speech is leading to spiritual illness or if it is a vital speech that can change lives for the better.
Our job is to pay attention to the difference — to learn when to keep things to ourself and when to speak out loudly and clearly. When should we think of our words as lashon harah and when as important tochecha. It is not always easy to know one from the other, but the more that we try to discern this before we speak, the more impact our words can have on ourselves and on others.
May we always know the difference between those things best kept to ourselves and those things that can change the world if spoken. And may we have the courage to act on both.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman is the rabbi of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah and is on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.