Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parshat Metzorah

In a case of Tzora’at of a house, the owner of the house must come to the Kohen and say “It appears to me as if there is something like a plague in the house” (Vayikra 14; 35). Rashi explains that he must not state definitively that it is Tzora’at even if he is learned and can recognise the discoloration for what it is, because that is the perogative of the Kohen. Furthermore, the Torah tells the Kohen to instruct the owner of the house to empty it of all its contents before he enters to look at the discoloration. This is so that if the discoloration is Tzora’at the contents of the house will not become Tamei. This clearly indicates that the declaration of the Kohen actually renders the house Tamei, and makes the discoloration into Tzora’at. He is not simply diagnosing, but actually creating Tzora’at.

To further highlight the Kohen’s role in defining Tzora’at, the Mishna (Negaim chap. 3, mishna 2) states that there are certain people who the Kohen should refuse to see if they have a discoloration on their skin which they think may be Tzora’at. For example, the Kohenmust not inspect a bride or groom before their wedding, but wait until after the first week of marriage in order that they should not have to spend the first week of their married life dwelling apart. In other words, despite all outward appearances to the contrary, a person does not become a Metzora until the Kohen has verbally declared him to be one.

Why should G-d choose to create a Tumah (impurity) that is contingent upon another person’s declaration? Does this not make a mockery of the whole thing? Will a Metzora not always seek a “second opinion”?

Following on from last week’s d'var Torah, we can explain the reason for the disease being dependent upon the words of the Kohen. We said (based upon the Talmud and other sources) that the main cause of Tzora’at is not physical, but rather as a result of a person speaking lashon hara (slander) about others. Tzora’at is a physical symptom of a spiritual disorder. Therefore it is appropriate that part of the disease should be dependent on the words of another.

Lashon Hara is usually not spoken maliciously, but rather because people simply do not pay attention to what the are saying. They don't realise the damage they can cause, and if they are rebuked by others their response is often “It is only words”, or in the words of the children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. This is a fallacy - words and names can do tremendous damage to others. Only when a possible Metzorah is dependent upon the words that the Kohen says does he or she realise the true importance of what they say, and how far reaching and damaging their speech can be. A person can lose his or her house, or be sent into isolation outside the city limits based on a few simple words. This alone should give them pause for thought, and cause them to think carefully before they speak.

The Talmud (Arachin 16b) states :
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra, what is the meaning of the verse “What can He give you, and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?” (Tehillim 120; 2). G-d said to the tongue “All the limbs are upright, and you are lying horizontally. All the limbs are external, and you are internal, and not only that, but I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (teeth) and one of flesh (lips)”. What can He give you and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?.
Despite the fact that it is caged in, many people are still unable to control their tongue. To make matters worse, most of the time we gain no benefit from the lashon hara which we speak, and yet we persist:

Reish Lakish said what is the meaning of the verse “If the snake bites because it was not charmed, then what advantage is gained by the one who uses his tongue?” (Ecclesiastes X; 11). At some point in the future all the animals will gather together, come to the snake and say “The lion kills in order to eat, the wolf tears others apart in order to eat, but you - what benefit do you gain?” The snake will reply “Tell me - what benefit is gained by the one who uses his tongue (to speak lashon hara)?

How much damage can we cause without any gain from not paying attention to what we say? And how fortunate were the generations who were able to realise the importance of what they said by having Tzora’at as a reminder, and opportunity to make amends?

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