Tuesday, October 21, 2014 Tishri 27, 5775

What Are the Afflictions for Malicious Speech?

March 30, 2011 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
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For those moments when everything has turned upside-down, this week's Torah portion provides the hope and promise that redemption and perfection are just beyond the horizon.

For the biblical sufferer of the spiritual and physical affliction known as tzara'at, often identified as leprosy, life amounted to solitary confinement outside of the Jewish people's camp.

But the skin disease that the bulk of this week's portion describes was entirely different: There were different types of afflictions, categorized by their appearance, and, according to tradition, they were inflicted by the Almighty for the transgression of lashon hara, malicious speech.

Once the malady was discovered and identified by a member of the priestly caste, the afflicted person had to tear his garments, couldn't shave or cut his hair, and called out to all who saw him: "Impure! Impure!"

He couldn't live with his family, and certainly couldn't have approached the Tabernacle -- and later, the Temple -- to offer the sacrifice that would confer ritual purification.

Put simply, one who had tzara'at was an outcast.

But while this week's portion spends most of its space on a condition that has no corollary in the modern era, it begins with a completely different set of laws -- those governing the temporary ritual impurity of a woman following childbirth.

Even the portion's name, Tazria, refers to a woman who has conceived.

It's as if the portion has things reversed: It begins with the promise of a new future, and ends with disease and isolation.

Relying on the general principle that heavenly punishments are not punitive but are redemptive in nature, the 16th-century sage Rabbi Moshe Alshich asserts that tzara'at only occurs when a person occupies a lofty spiritual level.

So when the only thing holding a person back is the quality of his or her speech, tzara'at comes as a reality check, and in so doing, provides a state of solitude during which the sufferer can refine his or her behavior.

Interestingly, the Torah states that if a person's entire body was covered with tzara'at, since he has "turned completely white, he is ritually pure."

And the Talmud relies on this verse as proof that the Final Redemption will only come when all the governments of the world "become heretical."

Certainly, such a breakdown in the social order is not something we should hope for. But the Talmud's view could actually be an affirmation of a positive state.

It could be hinting that we will only recognize the imperfection around us -- the heresy of other governments -- when we ourselves attain a lofty spiritual state. Then from such a level, we can appreciate how much more needs to be done to perfect the world.

The Torah reminds us that everything is not as it seems.

Sometimes, a door must be closed so that it forces us to open another one.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.

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