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Metzora and Misplaced Words

A Hasidic story, although retold through this rabbi’s modern eyes.

One day a man (let’s call him Mike) heard an interesting, albeit unflattering, story about another man (let’s call him Steve). It was an amusing tale and so Mike shared it with others. Everyone found the story entertaining. Mike reveled in the laughter. Soon Steve noticed that people gave him strange looks as he passed by on the street. He quietly wondered why. “Was it his hair style?” Then he noticed that people frequented his store less often. Soon he discovered the unkind words people were saying about him. He asked a friend what they were saying. He could not believe his ears. He soon found out the source of the tale. It was Mike!

Steve confronted the town’s storyteller, complaining that he had ruined his reputation by repeating this one, unflattering episode. Steve remains convinced that he is in fact an excellent dancer and that his gyrations were not inappropriate. Mike tried to make excuses that it was such an entertaining story and that it always got a laugh. “But now,” Steve stammered, “No one will even visit my shop.”

Mike was overcome with remorse and ran to his rabbi (let’s call her Susie) to seek counsel. Mike approached the rabbi and explained the situation. “How do I fix this? How can I repair Steve’s reputation?” The eminently wise rabbi offered a curious suggestion. “Go get a feather pillow and bring it to me.” Mike asked, “A feather pillow? Do they even sell those at Bed, Bath & Beyond anymore?” “Don’t be such a wise guy, Mike!” Susie exclaimed. “Go buy the pillow.”

Mike traveled throughout the greater New York area in search of such a pillow. He wondered how this was going to fix the problem. Still the rabbi offered a solution and he was anxious to repair Steve’s reputation. A week later, he finally found the pillow in a second hand shop in the Village and texted the rabbi about his success. Susie texted him back, “Meet me in Times Square tomorrow evening at 5 pm. Don’t forget to bring the pillow.”

Mike thought to himself, “This keeps getting stranger.” The next day arrived and he eventually found the rabbi standing by the TKTS Booth. “I see you have been successful,” she said. “Now what?” Mike asked. “Cut open the pillow and empty out the feathers.” Mike did as he was told. The feathers were soon carried away by the wind, flying up and down Broadway. People stared in amazement and took out their cell phones to post pictures of the beautiful feathers, shimmering in Broadway’s neon lights.

“Now, Mike” Susie said, “Go gather up each and every one of the feathers.” Mike stammered, “That’s impossible.”

“And that’s exactly my point,” Rabbi Susie quietly, but firmly, offered. She returned to her friends waiting in line for tickets. And Mike stood their quietly watching the feathers being carried away by the wind.

Who knows where they might fall? Who knows who might gather up a feather or two and place it in their pocket? “Look at the feather I found one evening on Broadway,” they might one day say when they wish to entertain their friends.

And that is exactly the lesson about gossip and the words we speak about others. Once they are told they can never again be gathered up. They are like feathers floating on the wind. The rabbis teach that even flattering, true words spoken about another can cause harm. Although their admonition is difficult to observe their counsel is too important to ignore.

A misplaced word can injure. An errant word can create a wound that is impossible to heal.

This week’s Torah reading speaks about leprosy. On the surface this would appear to be disconnected from gossip. And yet we read that Miriam is afflicted with leprosy when she spoke against her brother Moses. The rabbis therefore reasoned that a gossip is likened to a moral leper. They become disfigured by the misplaced words they speak.

Their words are carried away by the winds.

Who could imagine that such a light feather can cause so much harm?