Two weeks of leprosy! This week’s Torah portion also discusses the details of leprosy, including a leprous plague occurring on the walls of a house. Thankfully the rabbinic sages transformed metzora into a moral lesson. They spun a midrash from the letters of this Hebrew word for leprosy, expanding metzora into motzi shem ra, the spreading of malicious gossip.
They reasoned that gossip is morally disfiguring just as leprosy is physically deforming. Their teachings on gossip continue to resonate today. When we gossip, repeating something that is unflattering of others, we disfigure ourselves as well as others. We must recognize that just as words can build worlds, so too can they destroy. A person’s reputation can be destroyed with the press of a keyboard’s send. We follow a tradition that is built on the power of words. We can bless, as well as curse. We can praise, as well destroy. Once such negative words have been passed on to others, gathering them up can be an impossible task.
There are far too many examples from which we can draw to illustrate this point. This week for instance we read that Judge Goldstone retracted his most damaging claim against Israel. In his United Nations report on the recent Gaza War he wrote that Israel and its soldiers had purposely targeted civilians. Now he writes that his previous claim was false. I always knew that such claims were false, but how can he now gather up these words and undo the damage they have caused to Israel’s image and prestige?
Judaism counsels us that even if the story is true we should not repeat it. When speaking of others we must be most cautious. Our words can cause irreparable harm. The Chofetz Chaim, and nineteenth century Mussar teacher, offers us nine guidelines for right speech.
1. Do no spread a negative image of someone, even if that image is true.
2. Do not share information that can cause physical, financial, emotional or spiritual harm.
3. Do not embarrass people, even in jest.
4. Do not pretend that writing or body language or innuendo is not speech.
5. Do not speak against a community, race, ethnic group, gender, or age group.
6. Do not gossip, even to your spouse, relatives, or close friends.
7. Do not repeat gossip, even when it is generally known.
8. Do not tell people negative things said about them, for this can lead to needless conflict.
9. Do not listen to gossip. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness)
Everyone is guilty of gossiping. We often speak of others. I admit, it can be fun and entertaining. Recounting others’ problems makes us feel better about ourselves. But in the end gossiping only lessens our stature. So let us be more cautious when speaking about others. We should strive to use our words only for healing. Another Mussar teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, added: “Say what you mean. And do what you say.” That is an excellent motto by which to live our lives.
In these ways the rabbis transformed metzora into timeless moral lessons about the power of words. The leprous infections on houses, however, the sages were unable to transform into a moral lesson. Some even doubted that such an infection could exist. They questioned its meaning. And then Hurricane Katrina occurred and I realized the lesson. Too many were given to declare the Torah’s words, “Something like a plague has appeared on my house.” (Leviticus 14:35) Even after the waters receded, the black line remained.
And that is the moral lesson of gossip as well. It forever stains us.
And by the way, for more on New Orleans’ black line, listen to the Blues guitarist, Spencer Bohren, sing his song, Long Black Line: “Beautiful New Orleans, oh, she was so fine. Now everywhere you go, there's just the long black line.”