by Rabbi David Woznica
The role of the priest is front and center in the Torah reading this week. It is the priest’s responsibility to protect the community from the skin disease called Tzara’at and to bring spiritual aid to those who were suffering from it. The Rabbis of the Talmud found it of interest that so much of the Torah would be devoted to a disease of the skin and concluded there was greater significance to the disease than the physical.
Noting the similarity between the two Hebrew words Metzora (this week’s Torah portion) and Motzi (Shem) Ra, which is gossip, the Rabbis concluded that that the disease of Tzara’at was caused by spreading gossip.
Those of you who have been the victim of gossip know the damaging effects. Gossip, however, damages not only the subject. It also lowers the person speaking the words as well as the listener. It is also an insight into one’s character. Someone willing to gossip to you is most certainly willing to gossip about you.
Unless agreed upon otherwise, we should generally hold our conversations in confidence. That is why God frequently says to Moses, “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them…” God is giving Moses permission to share those words. Otherwise, it would not be proper for Moses to repeat them.
We all need to be reminded to watch our words. Perhaps that is why the Amidah prayers (the standing, often quiet, devotion during services) concluding paragraph begins, “My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception…” Traditionally, these words are recited three times a day. On Yom Kippur, nearly half of the sins in the Al Chet confessional deal with our use of words.
Unless we physically harm another, chances are that the greatest unjustified pain we cause is by using words inappropriately. That Judaism has many mitzvot and teachings about our use of words is a beautiful statement about the values of our religion and to the ideals it would have us aspire.