This week, we read a double Torah portion, Tazria Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) and we welcome the new month of Iyar. The portion which includes in it a challenging description of Tzara’at a “skin plague” which affects not only people, but clothing and even the walls of houses. While the cure–and the reason–for this affliction is not clearly given, the priest has a clear role in diagnosing and assisting those who are affected. The person is allowed to heal, and possible separated from the rest of the community until this happens–and then the priest pronounces the person either tamei--impure or tahor–pure.
We have discussed issues surrounding Tzara’at before. To very quickly review, our Sages point to the fact that there is a “Spiritual” source for this disease, and it is not Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) as we know it today. Indeed, it’s the High Priest (Kohain) who diagnoses it, and NOT a doctor. Most blame it on the sin of L’shon ha Rah— speaking evil or gossip. We will see later how it even effects houses and utensils! Houses and utensils? With Hansen’s disease? It HAD to be something else.
What bears comment is what the Torah proscribes for people who are affected by this disease. The “metzorah” – the person who is diagnosed with Tzara’at — has to tear his/her clothes as in mourning, holler “Unclean” as they walk through the streets, they have to distance themselves, and they have to basically live outside the city gates until the Kohain pronounced them “tahor” or purified.
Hmmm. Sound familiar? They even have to wear face masks! But while our Sages are concerned about physical contagion, the aspect of Lashon HaRah must be also considered! Our sages, one after the other, point out features of Tzara’at that don’t conform to true Leprosy, and blame the sin of Lashon HaRah for the affliction. As a “for instance” the Talmud (Arachin, 15b), Rava takes the word “metzorah” apart so that it reads “motzi rah” – one who brings forth evil! One can assume from this that It’s not just the physical contagion, but the contagion caused by gossip, by falsehood, by mocking, and by avoiding speaking the truth! (Chofetz Chaim) How quickly can the spirit be destroyed! The constant harangue of “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to perish in the Wilderness,” as well as the related “back chatter,” worked not only against Moses and against God as well, but it was shaking the faith of the People and minimizing all the miracles that came before! It needed to be quashed and prevented, or the People would never reach the Promised Land and prosper there. In short, the Metzorah is quarantined, not just because of the medical aspect, but also because of the moral aspect as well.
I don’t think I have to hit anybody over the head to see parallels between this and the past three years of this more contemporaneous plague – COVID-19 and political-social discord. Of course, Tzara’at in the Torah was a special phenomenon sent by God. That cannot be said about Covid-19. They are NOT the same disease, nor can we say that COVID-19 was God trying to fight LaShon haRah.That would be theologically reprehensible! Indeed, nearly a million Americans have died from it — many over unnecessary and needless delays caused by political tap dancing, gossip, falsehood and avoiding in dealing with any truthful statements – pure and clear LaShon haRah! People afflicted with the disease, the elderly among us, and those of us with other maladies have had to hide in our homes, cover our faces, and constantly wash our hands – not just because we may have caught it, but to prevent catching it, and if we are already afflicted, to keep from infecting others! We couldn’t ride public transportation, patronize restaurants, go to school, shop, go to the movies, or any other number of things in the name of “Public Safety”. We didn’t have to tear our clothes, unless a loved one had died from it – and that is more of a Jewish tradition.
Our method of “tahara” or cleansing is a whole lot easier than it was in Torah – no burnt sacrifices, no blood sprinkling and, unless the Kohain is also an MD, the Kohanim are not diagnosing anything. It takes only a simple vaccine and proper hygiene to avert the severe decree, but in the early days of this Pandemic, that was not the case. We were blessed in that our scientists, using new technology, were able to get ahead of it after a struggle. Remember, as Kabbalah teaches us, that in Genesis, God has placed everything we would ever need in the World – we just need to find it and work with it. But while we are doing infinitely better fighting this malady, our scientists are still talking in quiet corners about how, delayed by LaShon ha Rah (though they aren’t quite calling it that), we narrowly avoided a nearly extinction-level event.
Now, we are seeing the aftermath of the isolation, the lack of live, Human contact, and the inability to conduct our lives as we did before. The suicide rate has skyrocketed, depression among our children has made sad inroads. People who still live in fear are still not going out to work or out to shop, causing shortages and inflation. And it isn’t just in America – it’s worldwide! Such are the wages of LaShon HaRah! Bottom line? Watch out for and don’t participate in LaShon HaRah. Evil Speech can shut down even the most noble enterprise, let alone devastate individuals. The facts are what they are, and the situation is what it is. What we saw and heard these last three years were and are nothing new. Our ancestors encountered it themselves. And so we read not one, but two portions about the crisis of Tazria and the plight of the Metzorah. But will we learn the right lessons from our Torah portion?