On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Using Our Words to Heal, Not Hurt - Parashiyot Tazria and M’tzora

For many Jews, Parashiyot Tazria and M’tzora are perhaps the most nerve-inducing of all the Torah portions. After all, none of us is exactly eager to discuss leprosy - or the fact that, in our ancient Jewish texts, illness is often seen as a metaphor for punishment for sin. In this episode, which originally aired in...

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we are re-airing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits if you will. This week, we're going back to April 24, 2017, when Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about parashah Tazria-Metzora and asks us to think about what words we use in what we put out into the world.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on two portions, Tazria and Metzora. The Jewish calendar works that there are certain weeks we have to double up so that we can, in the course of a year, cover all the Torah portions. These two Torah portions are, in many Jewish circles, universally dreaded.

I remember I was sharing the Torah portions to a group of families for their child's B'nai Mitzvah. And I remember I handed out the portions, and I gave one family Tazria-Metzora. And they quietly read through the portion, and they came up to me indignant. They said, you don't expect our child to get up in front of his family and friends and read this, do you? And the this is a description of leprosy, the whole biblical treatment of a serious, serious illness-- what causes it, what is the healing process. And it goes into extreme detail about how one is supposed to cope with this very debilitating biblical illness.

Well, it turns out in Jewish tradition, and frankly in the larger cultural norms of the world, very often, illness is seen as a metaphor. It is not, in ancient times or medieval times, simply an illness that one gets through a bacteria or something that one catches. It's thought to be a punishment and is caused by some kind of sin or misbehavior.

Susan Sontag wrote a brilliant book, Illness is Metaphor, and she catalogs all the ways in which we, in human civilization, have done just that. Well, it turns out that the ancient rabbis did that with [HEBREW], which is the biblical word for leprosy. And in the opening of the second of the two [HEBREW], they saw it as [HEBREW]. It was an act of gossip that actually brought upon the biblical disease of leprosy. We see later, in the book of numbers, that Miriam is stricken with leprosy when she speaks ill of her brother Moses.

And so the question is, really, what is that relationship between cause and effect, behavior and illness. And I think that we, in our modern context, love to separate those two, but I want to spend a few moments just thinking about gossip, the words that we speak that literally cannot cause illness, but can cause such unbelievable harm. And the ancient rabbis were spot on. It's as if they knew something about the contemporary world that we're living in, where gossip and malignant speech seems to be simply an epidemic.

It's all around us. We read it. We hear it in news. We share it in our personal circles of friendship. And in the Jewish tradition, gossip harms three people. It harms the person who speaks the gossip, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom one is gossiping.

And I think in our tradition, the question is, there's so many things we can't control. We can't control all the very complicated forces in society and nature, but could we actually control the way we speak about others? In the Jewish tradition, gossip is also when I'm saying something nice about somebody.

I can start by saying, oh, you know so-and-so, well, I remember something wonderful. And I start with wonderful, but so quickly in human discourse does wonderful turn to not so wonderful, to hurtful, to angry. And that in the course of our speech, we actually can almost kill someone's character. In fact, the Jewish tradition thinks that we actually can cause damage equivalent to killing someone through the speech that we share about someone.

So I think about all the different ways that we can control, and maybe even curb, some of the ways that we speak. And you know what, if you listen in to any conversation, I ride the subway to work every day. Well, half the time, people spend their casual conversation talking about a third party. Jewish tradition says, be careful, just be careful about the way we speak about others and to try and use our speech to heal and to encourage and to lift up, as opposed to sometimes what we hear through the media today, which is an effort at discrediting and harming and undermining and attacking.

And I think that the way that we combat this is not going to happen only on personal levels. It's got to happen on all levels. And I think of an incredibly powerful story, takes place in the 11th century. It's about a Jewish sage named Shmuel Hanagid, and he was the advisor to the caliph.

And he was a very kindly and saintly person. And one day, he was going through the marketplace, and a very angry merchant just vilified him, spoke so harshly. And the caliph heard about this and was so indignant he said, to Shmuel, you must go, and you must cut out that person's evil tongue for speaking so hatefully about him.

Well, turns out, a couple of months later, the caliph happened to see that merchant and saw him with his tongue, and seemingly intact, and said to Shmuel, I thought I told you to cut out his evil tongue. And Shmuel Hanagid, being the kindly sage that he was, said, well, I did. I did cut out his tongue, and I replaced it with a kind tongue.

Question there is, can we transform? Can we transform hate speech into kindness? Can we transform gossip into encouragement? Can we change the discourse that we live in, that we receive?

And one of the things that's hardest to do is when someone is sharing gossip with us. It's hard to just say, you know, I'm not interested, or please stop, or that's very hurtful. But there is a way to do that in our own relationships, with our own friendships and with our own family.

And I think of all of the things that we could focus in on. And we think about the creation of the world. In the beginning of Genesis, it says that the world was created with a few well-chosen words, [HEBREW]. God said, let there be light, and light came into being.

With just a few words, worlds can be created. With just a few words, goodness can be shared. With just a few words, a reputation can be undermined and vilified.

So I think we have a lot of care-- maybe it means that we should be speaking less. Maybe that would be an antidote. Maybe we should be better at calling out public officials who are providing a kind of negative role model, speaking not only truths, but untruths, and speaking them in ways that blur fact and fiction.

We are in the midst of an epidemic. And leprosy, I don't believe, was caused by gossip. I think leprosy was an illness, and it was caused by natural means.

But I do know that the epidemic of hate speech and gossip, that course through our community, is something that is very dangerous, it is toxic, and it undermines what we could be so. When you're looking for, what is my spiritual practice-- maybe it's to light Shabbat candles, maybe it's to be very, very thoughtful about not using technology on a holiday like Shabbat, or maybe it's sitting in meditation. But maybe a very powerful form of spirituality for us is to be careful about our speech, to be intentional about the ways in which we speak, and to catch ourselves before. And if we didn't catch ourselves before, to try and repair and to heal afterwards. That, I think, is the epidemic that is before us.

And Tazria-Metzora go into all kinds of details, and they're worthy of exploration. But I think that in our world, very often, we see the kinds of illnesses that are attributed to behavior. It makes the pain of someone's illness even more to say that they brought it upon themselves. So I'd like to separate illness from deed, and I like to think about the power of speech.

I'd love to think the power of what each of us says today, what each of us will choose not to say. And let us create worlds of goodness. Let us create communities of wholeness by the words that we speak and the words that we don't speak. Tazria-Metzora, relevant to our day? You bet they are.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at, @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat.