Tazria (April 2, 2011)
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: (2) When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (3) The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
After the priest examines the skin of a person suspected of tzaraat, there are two possible outcomes. The priest might immediately declare the person tamei (“unclean” or “impure”), or he may require a period of up to two weeks of isolation for further examination. A person identified as infected must wear torn clothes as if in mourning, must live outside of the camp for the duration of the illness, and when in public places, must call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that others may be warned to stay away. Harsh!
The Bible offers no physical explanation for this disease, and Rabbinic tradition holds that tzaraat is not a form of skin disease at all but rather the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual ailment, the visible embodiment of an inner ugliness. Early commentators noted that in Deuteronomy 24:8, the warning “in cases of tzaraat, [one must] be most careful to do exactly as the priests instruct you” is followed by a reminder of “what God did to Miriam.” Miriam (in Numbers 12:1-13) was punished with a skin infection after gossiping about and publicly humiliating her brother, Moses. Rashi, the French medieval commentator, observed that Moses himself was punished with a skin condition after speaking unkindly about the Israelite people. (Exodus 4:1-6)
Based on examples such as these, the great medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides writes that tzaraat is no natural phenomenon but a divine punishment for lashon hara, speaking negatively about another person (even if what one says is true).
Because tzaraat is a result of sin, the appropriate response is not a medical intervention but a purification ritual led by a spiritual leader, the priest. The harsh punishment is necessary to emphasize the destructive power of words. Because gossip and slander may take place surreptitiously, without divulging one’s identity, a skin disease makes a person’s wrongdoing visible (and perhaps, embarrassing). And Sforno, another medieval scholar, observes that the time in quarantine provides the opportunity to reflect upon and reconsider one’s actions and repent.
This parashah offers a model for responding to lashon hara that is equally useful for teachers and parents alike. First, when one sees signs of gossip or malicious speech, it immediately is brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities. Second, there is a careful examination of the circumstances, which may lead to a required period of separation from the group while the truth of the matter is investigated. Third, in those cases where it is indeed found that there was mean-spirited speech, the response is swift and clear and provides an opportunity for the person to reconsider what happened; we would call this a “timeout” in modern parlance. But perhaps most important, as described in the coming week’s Torah portion of M’tzora, there is a clear process for making amends, accompanied by the expectation of a full return to the group.
The fact is kids (and adults) can be mean to one another. We say both true and untrue things to hurt one another’s feelings or without regard for the effect of our words. It is our responsibility as adults not only to be careful in our speech but also to be on the watch for the unkind and insensitive remarks of others.
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