Chazal (“Our sages of blessed memory”) made an ingenious connection between the seemingly inaccessible and arcane laws of tzara’at; a skin disease not easily identified by modern medical science, and lashon hara, speech which is harmful to others. Lashon hara will be a relevant ethical category as long as people are able to communicate with one another. Tzara’at, on the other hand, is not even easily categorized as a disease, as it includes not only a small variety of skin afflictions, but molds and mildews that may appear on clothes and buildings as well, and not even been seen in recent recorded history. Torah study around lashon hara cannot lose its relevance. Finding inspiration, wisdom, or practical information when studying tzara’at can be extremely difficult.

Fortunately for us, given that at least one or two weeks of the year present us with Torah readings that deal primarily with tzara’at, the rabbis draw a connection to lashon hara through an incident with Miriam, who was punished by God with tzara’at after criticizing her brother Moshe for his relationship with his “Cushite wife.” (The ways in which the concept of tum’ah is used to marginalize Orthodox women is a famously problematic issue, but beyond the scope of this drashah.) The Torah reads in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 24:8, 9:

 Be most careful, regarding tzaraat, to do exactly as the Levite priests instruct you. Be sure to do as I have commanded them. Remember what The Eternal, your God, did to Miriam on the way as you left Egypt.

On these verses, the author of the seminal work on lashon hara,  the book Chafetz Chayim (Positive Commandments, 1), writes:

…The Torah warned us in this, that we shall remember in our mouths always the great punishment that Hashem, may He be blessed, dealt to the righteous Miriam the prophet who only spoke of her brother who she loved as herself, and raised him on her knees, and endangered herself in order to save him from the sea, and she did not even disparage him, but only compare him to other prophets!

Another connection is made between our parashah and lashon hara. The parshiot Tazria-Metzora are part of a larger set of chapters devoted to tum’ah  and taharah, taint and purity; how tum’ah is contracted or transmitted, and how the priests may cleanse one of it. Tum’ah is something that, if one carries it, prohibits one from entering the Temple or the Mishkan, and from touching sanctified food and objects. These laws deal with remaining holy, and protecting God’s holiness. The Chafetz Chayim writes (Negative Commandments, 6):

One who tells or hears lashon hara also transgresses the negative commandment of “Do not desecrate My Holy Name” (Lev. 22:32).

Anyone who denigrates another human being, who is created in the Divine image, disparages that human being’s creator. Just as our verbal attacks on another render them tamei (“tainted”) in the eyes of the community, and unable to wholeheartedly enter society, so does tzara’at render them tamei and unable to enter holy spaces. Protecting the the holiness of our holy communal spaces therefore means protecting the dignity of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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