Parashat Metzora

April 7, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, News, Vayikra


By Rabbi Irwin Huberman

With the increased use of text messages and emails, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, society is currently experiencing an unprecedented change in the way we communicate with each other.

Through time, the Torah and Talmud, and such great rabbis as Maimonides and the Hafetz Hayyim have warned us about careful use of words, and the pitfalls of Leshon Hara (evil tongue and language).

In most cases, these sacred texts and rabbinical commentators were referring to gossip which occurred face to face in homes, synagogues or other public places.

But today, we, and in particular our children communicate less “face to face” and more “screen to screen.”

Psalm 34:13 reminds us “to guard our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech.”  Perhaps in today’s society, that should be amended to “guard our thumbs from harmful messages.”

Rabbinical commentators in examining this week’s Parashah, Metzora (“one being diseased”) takes direct aim at the human inclination to engage in gossip.  On the surface, the text both this week and last week (Tazria) extensively discusses skin diseases, and the measures required both to protect the camp and to purify the affected individual.

But in the next book of the Torah, Numbers (Bamidbar), the Rabbis focus on an important event which they say explains the prevalence of tzara’at, the leprous skin affliction mentioned in this week’s Parashah.

In Numbers 12:1-6, Miriam is banished from the camp with a form of tzara’at, which appears soon after she engages in gossip against her brother Moses. The connection between skin disease and Leshon Hara is not lost on the rabbis.

The Talmud (Arakhin 15B) concludes that the plague of tzara’at is a consequence of Leshon Hara.

The Talmud makes countless references to the pitfalls of gossip reminding us in particular of the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people” (Lev. 19:16).

The Talmud reminds us of the ripple effect of gossip, observing that “the tongue of person three (a gossipmonger) kills three. The tongue kills the one who speaks the Leshon Hara, the one who accepts it and the one about whom it is said.” (Arakhin 15b)

In the twelfth century, the great rabbi Maimonides defined Leshon Hara in every day terms. In Hilkhot De’ot 7:5 (laws of philosophy), he states “Leshon Hara is anything which, if it would be publicized, would cause the subjects physical or monetary damage, or would cause anguish or fear.”

But what about today?  Do these laws of gossip apply to the more than the 2.5 billion text messages or 250 billion emails sent every day?  On social networks such as Facebook and Twitter writers often share random and uncensored thoughts about themselves and third parties with little regard to their consequences or the feelings of others.

Moreover, in behooves us to ask what kind of words are being used as many of our children and students engage in a steady stream of text messaging on the street, under the dining room table or in restaurants.

The media in recent years has documented countless cases of hurt feelings, ruined reputations and untruths being spread by teenagers who are often provided with electronic forms of communications with little if any moral guidelines.

Leshon Hara within our society is alive as ever.  However, in many cases it has shifted from oral conversation, to a variety of cyber media. This trend compels us to be more vigilant than ever against the use of careless or hurtful words.

Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, noted that Leshon Hara spread electronically is much worse that verbal gossip because its spread “has no limits” and can reach hundreds and thousands of people.”

The current trend in communications demands, as we reflect on Parashat Metzora that, as Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

We are also reminded that the misuse of words whether through our lips or our thumbs has the ability to pierce the skin, and the skin of others.

Words have the power to either build or destroy. Let us therefore dedicate ourselves to ensure that the words we speak and text serve as a source of Godliness.

In the words of poet Heather Forest, “may all your words, my friend, be kind.”


Rabbi Irwin Huberman serves Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, New York.