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Friday, April 8, 2011

Parshat Metzorah: Words Can Really Hurt Us

This week's parashah is Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1-15:33). In this parashah, we continue the laws concerning the person with tzara'at (skin afflictions) that began last week. Last week we read that the person suffering from skin afflictions (commonly translated as leprosy) is to be kept separate from the camp until the priest has determined that s/he is healed. The person is considered tamei (translated as ritually impure, for lack of a better term) and in danger of contaminating the camp both physically and spiritually. The Torah does not distinguish physical illness as separate from the religious realm. Tzara'at is viewed as a punishment from God for sin and so the priests, those in charge of the religious realm, must oversee the person's diagnoses, treatment (read: isolation) and reintegration into
the community.

The word Metzora, one afflicted with this skin affliction, is read by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra,one who one who slanders another's name”.  They believed that one who slanders or gossips was punished with this affliction (see the punishment of Miriam, sister of Moses, that comes in Numbers, chapter 12). If this were indeed the case then I would venture to say that many, if not all, of us would be walking around with some degree of skin affliction at various times. However, Jewish tradition takes gossip very seriously. The Talmud actually teaches that to slander or embarrass someone in public is like shedding a person's blood. Therefore, the rabbis believed that slander and gossip deserved a severe punishment that included not only a physical affliction, but also separation from the community.

In his commentary on the parashah, the Hassidic teacher know as the Sefat Emet (language of truth) focuses on the opening verse of the parashah:  "this is the Torah concerning the afflicted person."  He reminds the reader that the Torah teaches "Shalom, Shalom, to the far and to the near" (Isaiah 57:19).  In his interpretation, "far"  refers to the afflicted person separated from the community. In his insightful commentary, the Sefat Emet states that distancing the person
from the community and from God is simultaneously a punishment and the means of bringing healing, defined as shalom/peace or shelaimut/wholeness. He refers to a midrash that teaches  that, though a bandage heals a human being wounded by a knife, God is able to heal through the same means by which God wounds.

In this parashah, the separation from the community commanded by God is a punishment that eventually brings about healing and purification. Being separated from the community and from God enables the one who gossips to think about the effects of his/her actions and to work on changing. Like a person who goes on a silent retreat or a trek in the desert, that person will hopefully find God in the silence and the separation.

In his gloss on the Sefat Emet, Arthur Green comments that one of the ills of modernity is the separation from God. In the spirit of this parashah,  I would also add the concurrent separation from community. He then makes the case that this separation can also be seen as the impetus for healing and bringing oneself closer to God (and community). Our speech is one way we separate ourselves from God and from others. Speaking ill of someone, or simply wasting our time talking about others rather than focusing on meaningful speech, causes a gulf to widen between us and God, as well as community and the universe.

Yet, as the Sefat Emet reminds us, the separation is at once both punishment and cure.  If we allow it. When we realize that we have become separated from God, community and the universe, we simply need to acknowledge this. Then, rather than immediately running back, either literally or figuratively, we need to simply stay where we are. For if we immediately return to the "scenes of our crimes" there is a greater chance that we will simply resume where we left off and find ourselves alone once again.

By simply staying where we are, we can recognize and feel the pain of the separation and loneliness. Yet, if we are not afraid of the loneliness itself and we allow ourselves to experience it we can perhaps hear the voices within us that cause us to speak ill of others, to gossip, to tell tales. We can hear the insecurity, the anger, or whatever it is within us that turns those thoughts into speech. Then we can then move on to the next step, which is allowing those voices to eventually die on their own so that we can then hear the voice beneath them. That is the true voice within. That is the voice of the Divine spirit that connects us to all and that is within each of us. Once that voice is heard, we can then begin our return to the community.

In this way, the separation and loneliness that we can feel, even while being physically in the midst of the world, becomes healing balm rather than a canker gnawing away at our soul. This is only one of the ways in which loneliness, and being alone, can be exactly what we need at that moment. We only have to realize this.

As we prepare to celebrate Pesakh/Passover, which is called z'man heiruteinu/the time of our freedom, let us free ourselves from the chains of gossip and hurtful speech. Let us each assess how far we have placed ourselves from God, community and self through our speech, as well as other deeds. If we then come to realize that we have separated ourselves from community, and that we are indeed alone, let us use this sense of aloneness as a way of bringing us back to God, community and our truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom. 

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