The Power of Words

How do our words affect our physical lives — and the lives of those around us?

This week we read a two Torah portions, a “double parasha,” Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-14:33). They are both relatively short and they are both concerned with pretty yucky details about skin diseases. As the G-dcast story teller, Jennifer Traig, acknowledges, it’s a dreaded parasha to get for your bar or bat mitzvah — whatever will you be able to talk about that isn’t totally gross?

The important thing to remember is that the Torah sometimes gives us something very physical (skin disease) for us to understand in a meta-physical way (as divine punishment for anti-social speech) — in other words, as a metaphor for something real in our contemporary lives. In this day and age of speech that actually hurts and causes real damage, one could actually benefit by thinking about the lessons of hurtful speech, gossip, and other sins that come from plain old talking. All you have to do is look to the political divides and stalemates in the US Congress to realize that hateful speech is alive and even thriving today. Sometimes don’t you wish that the loudest, most vociferous congresspeople were told to take a “time-out” or were sent away for a while, to be alone in the wilderness, perhaps to recover their sense of perspective?

Our storyteller makes it patently clear that we are not talking about a skin disease of the sort that can be healed by a salve or cream. A dermatology aphorism is: if it’s dry, make it wet; if it’s wet, make it dry. There’s no such snappy advice that the cohen (priest) could give in the days of the torah, but he might have said this: “You need to be alone, for an extended period of time, until you can refrain from gossip. I will let you know when you can come back.”

The skin disease described in our parasha existed only in Biblical times, according to the rabbis; it is called “tza’ra’at” and is incorrectly described as leprosy (we will understand more about this faulty translation in a bit). So, even though gossip, speaking badly of others, spreading rumors, and repeating unpleasant things about people we know and don’t know is still very much a part of our social fabric, we have no prescriptions to heal the person afflicted with the disease of being a gossip-monger. In this sense, the Biblical rules were way ahead of our own.

Moving on to the next parasha, Metzora, we note that these two parshiot (Torah readings) are a matched pair, and, in fact, are often read on the same Shabbat. There is a good way to remember how this parasha links to the previous one. In Hebrew, even though “metzora” means a person who has tza’ra’at (the unlucky one afflicted with the yucky skin disease), it also is like an anagram for the expression “motzi shem ra” (literally: extract a bad name), meaning one who is a slanderer, who spreads evil speech. This is to remind us that the person who is a metzora (has the skin disease) must have been spreading gossip or committing other verbal offenses.

The storyteller for Metzora, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, tells us that this parasha is an “interesting place to learn about our bodies and ourselves.” He traces the centuries-old translation mistake that equated tza’ra’at, an unknown (by whom?) Biblical skin disease, with the skin disease of leprosy. Starting with a list of scaly skin diseases compiled by Hippocrates, we leap forward to a 9th century (unnamed) physician who wrongly called tza’ra’at leprosy, which helps us to understand why lepers, although not contagious, were isolated even in our recent history and sent “outside the camp” even though there was no evidence that they had indulged in gossip. For centuries, one little word was mis-translated and much human suffering ensued.

Rabbi Greenberg emphasizes the power of a word, “davar” in Hebrew. He quotes the rabbis of the Talmud who say that the power of life and death is in the tongue, and reminds us that once harmful speech is “out there” it is next to impossible to repair the harm it has caused. Another way to think about how Jewish thought regards the power of a word: davar also means “thing.” It is as if we are meant to understand that a word is a real, physical object. It is not ephemeral; it has life and power and can be used for good and for bad, with real consequences in the lives of each and every one of us.

In the days of the Bible, the warning signs were obvious:

  1. First, tza’ra’at appeared on the walls of your house.
  2. Then, if you didn’t stop spreading rumors and speaking ill of others, the fungus would appear on your clothes.
  3. Finally, your own skin began showing scaly areas and sores, and you had to be isolated and go through a whole cleansing ritual before coming back into the camp, kind of like re-joining society after being imprisoned.

Fast forward to now: what warning signs do we have that our gossip is causing harm? How can we prevent ourselves from engaging in it? After all, isn’t a little gossip just an innocent indulgence? And we know it’s also kinda fun…. Nope, says the Torah, the rabbis, and the law codes. Gossip (“lashon hara,” casually speaking about others for no good reason) has no place in a healthy, well-functioning society. Even though an outbreak of zits nowadays has nothing to do with tza’ra’at, we would do well to guard our tongues from speaking evil.

Striving not to speak evil? It is, by the way, something we say in prayers at least 3 times a day, maybe because it’s so hard to actually accomplish. The following prayer is quite old, from the days of the Talmud (200-600 CE), when it was composed by Mar, son of Ravina, who used to say:

“My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments. Deliver me from evil occurrences, from the evil impulse, and from all evils that threaten to come upon the world. As for all that design evil against me, speedily annul their counsel and frustrate their designs. ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.’”