Parshat Tazria Metzora 2017
What would a dermatologist say about the contents of today’s two parshot, Tazria and Metzora? He might say: You think this is Hanson’s Disease? Leprosy? No way! It’s not contagious, it appears in walls, on clothing and not only on people, and it goes away, or it doesn’t! But that’s our tzara’at, what is incorrectly translated as leprosy. We have spots, eruptions, discolorations and scaling that may spread, but we don’t have body parts falling off as in the stereotyped picture of the disease. And as we see in today’s reading, it is treated as a purely spiritual phenomenon.
This actually fits in with many holistic views of disease, which hold that physical ailments are reflections of some internal imbalance or dysfunction. There is, for example, a healing art called kinesiology, or muscle testing, in which specific muscles in the body are said to correspond to specific internal organs. Thus, you test the muscle and if you find it is weak, this means that the corresponding organ or system in the body is also weak. And it works both ways. Strengthening the muscle will help to strengthen the system. A very strange practice indeed.
Chinese medicine is also holistic. Certain colors of skin reflect imbalance in the body. Reflexology has points on the foot or hand or earlobe that correspond to inner systems. Even the location of backaches may indicate the emotional source of the pain.
In our case of tzaraat, treatment is given by the priest. For the most part, the source is thought to be evil speech – not against God but against man. Rumor, untruth, slander, libel, backstabbing and all the negative emotions that lead to such activity – all these are considered to be the source of the tzaraat that we read about today.
The connection between tzaraat and speech was made in in the story of Miriam speaking out against Moshe. She contracts real leprosy – white skin – and Aharon pleads on her behalf – save her, she is like a dead person. And much earlier, Moshe is given a taste of the white death after he slanders the Israelites, telling God that they will not believe him, not follow him, not believe that God spoke to him.
But beyond that, tzaraat is an indication that something is rotten in the person’s psyche. Something has to be cleaned out. If the walls of a house are afflicted, this can be taken as a warning of things to come. The next step, closer to the body, is the clothing. And finally the body itself – although interestingly, these three steps are actually presented in reverse order in the parshot. If the person heeds the warning from the house, the pox will not afflict his clothing or his body. And so on.
We continue to believe that rumor-mongering is wrong, at least in principle, but it can be so much fun! And today it is so easy on the various internet social platforms. We can shame people. We can accuse people, rightly or wrongly. We can cause virtual excommunication if a person posts something you don’t like or misinterpret.
Perhaps all of this verbal venom is a reaction to the politically correct strictures that have been imposed in the western world. Don’t say anything that is prejudicial against any one or any group. Even in science we see its effects. What used to be called the subjects of research are now called participants. Don’t ask me why.
On the other hand, this verbal venom may simply be a reflection of the state of mind of too many people in our society.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs asked a simple yet profound question on the parsha. We know about lashon hara – evil speech. But is there such a thing as good speech and does it have effects? The answer is yes, and yes.
He brings a famous passage from the Talmud which says the following (in paraphrase):
Our Rabbis taught: How should we dance before the bride [i.e. what should we sing]? The disciples of Hillel hold that at a wedding you should sing that the bride is beautiful, whether she is or not. Shammai’s disciples disagree. Whatever the occasion, don’t tell a lie as is written, “Keep your distance from a lie”. “Do you call that a lie?” the Hillelites respond. “In the eyes of the groom at least, the bride is beautiful.”
What is the argument about here? According to Rabbi Sachs it is about the function of language. Shammai’s disciples believe that language is for giving facts. Something is either true or false and that’s what matters. According to Hillel, words are much more than that. They affect us. They can encourage and motivate or they can discourage and deflate.
We all experience the motivational function of language in advertising, and if we are lucky, our children or grandchildren will benefit from its use in good educational systems where it helps to bring out the best in pupils. The negative uses are also clearly seen as people are berated and browbeaten until they have no desire to do anything because, as they have been told, they and their desires, don’t count.
We are at the most sensitive junction of the year for Israel. Last week we memorialized the Holocaust victims. This Monday we will honor the fallen and then on Tuesday celebrate what these people gave their lives for. When we read Israel’s declaration of independence or when we read the writings of those who toiled to found this state, we are moved by the words and the high ideals they reflect. These are words that can motivate.
This week, before we set out for a picnic and our barbeque, we should think about these ideals and our ideals, and whether they are being upheld in our country. On second thought, that’s a good practice to follow throughout the year.
Shabbat Shalom and Yom Atzmaut Sameach