Parashat Metzora deals with the purification ritual for a leper (probably not the illness we know as leprosy today, but rather a sufferer of tzara'at from last week's portion) as well as with houses which seem to be affected by a similar plague. Metzora concludes with other emissions which cause impurity.
Metzora – Zvi Solomons
Zvi Solomons, born above dad's surgery in Kilburn, attended St Paul's School, Cambridge, Reading University, Shapells and Jews' College. Past Rabbi of Potters Bar, Liverpool's Princes Road Synagogue, he now works in Reading Hebrew Congregation.
In the Torah Portion this week we hear about Tzora'at, which the old-fashioned translators termed leprosy. This just goes to prove how out-of-touch the King James version of the Bible is, for all its florid Shakespearean language. Midrash gives ten reasons for Tzora'at: (1) idol-worship, (2) unchastity, (3) bloodshed, (4) the profanation of the Divine Name, (5) blasphemy of the Divine Name, (6) robbing the public, (7) usurping a dignity to which one has no right, (8) overweening pride, (9) evil speech, and (10) an evil eye. The Rabbis focus the nature of Tzora'at as being not leprosy but a particularly interesting ailment, derived from Lashon Hara or "wicked tongue".
The issue of language in our society is one which needs tackling. Yet mention the rules laid down to avoid wicked tongue to most people and they will exclaim, "But if I follow these rules, I won't be able to say anything about anyone." Careful thought before careless speech avoids great distress to others. One careless word placed in the wrong hands can cause more misery even than a physical blow. Once the word is out, it cannot be recalled. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explained that like the bird set free in the purification ceremony for Tzora'at, the offender has babbled and spread a noise round their community.
Wicked tongue is the Halacha against slander. This means telling the truth about someone by word or gesture, whether rolling the eyes or even saying something which could be taken the wrong way. It involves tone of voice as well. The great sage the Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan wrote two books on wicked tongue including the first, which became his hallmark first publication, and after which he became known as its title: the Chofetz Chaim. A beautiful story is told of how important it is to avoid gossiping about someone, no matter how true it may be.
A man once engaged the Chofetz Chaim in conversation about himself, not knowing who the Rabbi was. He asked him about the saintly stage of Radin, the little town in Poland where he lived. He praised him highly for his scholarship and his saintliness, and Rabbi Kagan replied that he should not believe everything he had heard, that the Chofetz Chaim was a man just like everyone else, and that he was no saint.
It was erev Shabbat and so he hurried home to prepare. A knock came on his door, and when he opened up there was the man he had been speaking to! From this, Rabbi Kagan learnt, that one should not speak even the truth about oneself in case it became Lashon Hara.
In a society like ours, where the amplification of gossip has become big business, where the tabloids thrive on any slight rumour and make men and women miserable with their love of wicked rumours and gossip, we see this as part of the normal way of life in our world. No wonder so many people deny the possibility of keeping the laws of wicked tongue, as being so very against their lifestyle. Yet the excess we sometimes see in other parts of our lives is present in our very mouths. So many of our children's heroes are unable to control their tongues, even on a very basic level. One need only think of the footballer Wayne Rooney and his recently upheld ban for swearing at a television camera, (although it has to be acknowledged that his antics are by no means his first offence).
"Silence," says the Book of Proverbs, "is a fence for wisdom." There cannot be many of us who have not felt foolish for letting out what should have been retained. Something to pause and think about before Shabbat.
The Poetic Edda is one of the oldest Norse texts we have (perhaps 13th century), with poems from the Icelandic tradition. The Havamal is a collection of wisdom verses, detailing advice given us by Odin.
Extract from the Havamal (Sayings of the High One)
The foolish man in company
does best if he stays silent;
no one will know that he knows nothing,
unless he talks too much;
but the man who knows nothing does not know
when he is talking too much.
Wise that man seems who knows how to question
and how to answer as well;
the sons of men cannot keep secret
what's already going around.
Quite enough senseless words are spoken
by the man never silent;
a quick tongue, unless its owner keeps watch on it,
often talks itself into trouble.
Translated by Carolyne Larrington for the Oxford World's Classics series.