Feathers, Wicked Speech and Covid

Parashat Tazria-Metzora / פרשת תזריע־מצרע
Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

A popular folktale tells how a rabbi once cured a townsperson of his inclination toward slander and other forms of lashon hara, harmful speech.

The rabbi advises the man to take a feather pillow into the town square and beat it with a broom until the pillow’s casing rips open and the feathers fly to and fro. The man follows the rabbi’s advice and watches as thousands of feathers fly away through the square and beyond. The man then goes back to the rabbi to report that he had done as advised.

The rabbi then tells him there’s just one more thing he must do to be cured of lashon hara once and for all: the man now has to go back to the square and collect up all the feathers. When the man realizes this would be impossible and protests, the rabbi explains that speech is like the feather pillow: once a word has been spoken, its effects are beyond the speaker’s control, and try as he may, there is no recapturing that speech.

This week’s Torah portion teaches about the need for all of us to control our speech and avoid engaging in lashon hara.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora ostensibly deals with a snow-white scaly skin affliction and parallel afflictions that grow on fabrics and on the walls of homes. The mysterious affliction is called tzaraat, and the one who has it is known as a metzora. How do our sages go from skin disease to talking about “wicked speech”? They play with the word “metzora” and say that it is short for “motzi shem ra” – speaking ill of another. Lashon hara, the rabbis say, covers speech that is true but has the potential to bring about humiliation and destroy people’s lives. Motzi shem ra is speech that is not true – defamation – that can have the same affect. When Miriam, Moses’s sister, publicly attacks Moses’s character in the Book of Numbers, God strikes her with tzaraat. Using the same word play, the sages say her punishment of tzaraat fits her misdeed of motzi shem ra, speaking ill of Moses and humiliating him.

Just as we have cures for diseases today, our biblical ancestors had cures for diseases in their day. Thus, the Torah directs the afflicted person to appear before a priest for diagnosis. If the person tests “positive,” the “treatment” includes separation from the community until the skin clears up, followed by an offering of two birds, one of which is to be slaughtered, the other of which is to be taken in the priest’s hand along with hyssop, cedar wood and crimson stuff and dipped in the blood of the slaughtered one. The water is then sprinkled on the person and the person is rendered spiritual pure once again.

Why are birds involved in this cure? The rabbis teach us that birds chirp and chatter just as the offender “chirped” and “chattered.” In other words, the punishment fits the crime. The price to pay for lashon hara is minimally the cost of two birds, one killed, the other “humiliated” by the blood stains it must bear. In real life, lashon hara has the potential to embarrass and humiliate or, worse, to destroy lives, livelihoods, and families.

As I mentioned, the effects of tzaraat are not limited to individuals. Clothing and the walls of houses are also susceptible to tzaraat. What’s more, the method to rid fabric and homes of the disease is identical to the cure for humans. Here, too, the Torah prescribes the offering of two birds. The rabbis teach that the diseased clothing, which can be seen by the public, represents the communal impact of lashon hara. An ill word, whether true or not, spoken about one person may upset a whole community, dividing it into advocates and detractors of both the speaker and the one spoken about. Closer to home, so to speak, words spoken have the potential to tear families apart. It’s as if the disease of one person mutates and covers the walls of his home and, perhaps, the walls of the one he or she has harmed. Thus, the Torah’s discussion of tzaraat suggests that the cost of lashon hara is born not just by the one who speaks it but by the speaker’s family and community, as well.

It is notable that both the story of the man who learned a lesson about speech and the Torah’s treatment of tzaraat each involve feathers, one in the form of the down stuffing of a pillow, the other in the form of the birds who provide them. When we fail to control our speech, we cause feathers to fly, blood to flow, the fabric of our being to become stained. Too often we ignore this high cost of our speech, and we aren’t even aware of the harm that we cause. It’s not only with Covid that we must remain vigilant about what comes out of our mouths, but with speech, too. Once it’s out, we have no control over where it lands.

We would be wise to heed the words of Rabbi Ben Zoma who said, “Who is strong? The one who controls his/her impulses.” When it comes to speech, truer words could never be spoken.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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