Tazria-Metzora 5780 – Is Gossip Contagious

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

When I first looked at this week’s parshah, I saw it was about leprosy and I thought to myself as an infectious diseases doctor,” Finally, something I can understand.” We learn about the metzora, a person suffering from a skin affliction named tzara’at, which is inaccurately translated as leprosy and has nothing in common with the infectious disease I learned about.   If a person was declared a leper by the priests, the public health needs of the community were made paramount and the person was placed outside the community until fully healed. This may be one of the first examples of social distancing. The person was considered ritually impure and in danger of contaminating the camp both physically and spiritually.  The sages identify tzara’at not as an illness but as a punishment for the specific sin of lashon hara which is evil speech. There is no direct commandment against evil speech in the Torah but there is a prohibition against gossip:” Do not go around as a gossiper among your people.”  Gossip is one example of evil speech. The sages go to remarkable lengths to emphasize the seriousness of evil speech. It is, they say, as bad as all three cardinal sins together – idol worship, bloodshed, and forbidden sexual relations.

The word metzora is interpreted by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra, the one who brings forth an evil name. In other words, one who slanders or gossips is punished with this affliction. As mentioned, Jewish tradition takes gossip very seriously. The Talmud teaches that to slander or embarrass someone in public is like shedding a person’s blood. So, the rabbis believed that slander and gossip deserved a severe punishment that included not only the skin affliction, but the subsequent separation from the community.  The public castigation that the metzora suffers is a powerful warning for us to” guard our tongues.” It was with words that God created the world, and our words have the potential to build, create, sustain life and human dignity, or be a source of pain and destruction.

Tzara’at might not operate in the same way as the infectious diseases which we are familiar with today, but remember part of the treatment for tzara’at was isolation from the community. While this precaution may have arisen from the desire to prevent the spread of a contagious disease, it undoubtedly left the metzora feeling emotionally, as well as physically, alone. Being separated from the community and from God enables the one who gossips to think about the effects of his/her actions and to work on changing.  This separation is a punishment that eventually brings about healing and purification

When cured of his illness, the metzora is then permitted to rejoin the community, but the period of isolation may have left him angry and withdrawn.

We now know what it feels like to be separated from our community. We are sheltering in place thanks to the corona virus. However, unlike our ancestors, we have our spouses, TV, computers, home delivery services, and Zoom conferencing. But despite this, we still feel isolated, with many feeling anxious, depressed and angry, similar to the metzora.  We are also experiencing fear: fear for our health and a fear of the unknown.  Perhaps we could use this time to reflect on how we might better ourselves.

Very few people would spread an infectious disease on purpose. Infections can spread naturally in the course of human interaction, often before the disease carrier shows any symptoms of being sick, again like the Corona virus. On the other hand, gossip and evil speech are the result of people consciously and frequently enthusiastically sharing information with others.

Gossip plays a very significant role in human society. Information spreads throughout the human grapevine at an amazing speed, often reaching almost everyone in a community. Or worse, one click on a computer can send the message to hundreds or even thousands of people instantaneously. Moreover, rumor tends to be extremely stubborn: once spread, it is nearly impossible to erase it.

It is interesting to me that Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen (1838-1932) wrote about gossip as a chronic infectious disease.  “Those who listen to slanderous gossip are just as guilty as the tale bearers. Repeated use of the evil talk is like a silk thread made strong by hundreds of strands. The foul sin of talebearing often results in a chain of transgressions. Leprosy was regarded as a punishment for slander, because the two resemble each other: they are both slightly noticeable at the outset, and then develop into a chronic, infectious disease. Furthermore, the slanderer separates husband from wife, brother from brother, a friend from friend; he is, therefore, afflicted with the disease which separates him from society. One sinful Jew can do harm to all his people, who are like a single body sensitive to the pain felt by any of its parts.”

The experience of being removed and separated from the community motivated men to cease acting selfishly and begin to put the needs of the community had of their own. While selfishness leads to a kind of isolation, acts of sharing and generosity cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion.

Metzora contains a cautionary tale – a reminder of the power of language. Language allows us to communicate with others and share with them our fears, hopes, loves, feelings, and intentions. Speech allows us to convey our inwardness to others. It is a very heart of the human body.

When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage our community.

May we free ourselves from gossip and hurtful speech and continue to support each other and our community.  I look forward to the day when we end our isolation and I can see all of you in person.