Elevating Our Speech
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, includes instructions on how to treat someone who has “metzora.” Metzora has often been defined as leprosy but is also described as some sort of scaly skin affliction. The Talmud, in Tractate Arakhin, indulges in a word play, changing מצורע (metzora) to מוציא שם רע (motzi shem ra). Motzi shem ra is translated as someone who defames another person’s good name. In ancient times, leprosy was a dangerous and very contagious disease. Someone who had the symptoms was quarantined outside the community. Perhaps the rabbis believe that speaking ill of others is dangerous and destructive on both a physical and spiritual level.
Another connection between leprosy and evil speech comes from a story about Miriam and Aharon. In the story, they speak negatively about Moshe’s marriage and express jealousy over who is the greater prophet. God rebukes them and Miriam is left afflicted with leprosy. Aharon begs Moshe to intercede on her behalf. In one of my favorite Torah moments, Moshe prays to God: “אל נא רפא נא לה” – “O God, pray heal her.”
There are two reasons why I love this. First, there is the juxtaposition of evil and good speech. Most gossip revolves around lengthy conversations that tear someone down. Moshe’s prayer of healing is short and to the point. The more we talk about others the more likely we are to stray into negative talk. Second, Moshe’s prayer is instructive. It is passionate, short and from the heart. There are times when a community finds it important and meaningful to join together to recite the elaborately constructed poetry in the siddur. Still, we should also know that we can pray anywhere, anytime and with words and feelings that come from our heart. I find this empowering and comforting.
It is very hard to use speech for good and constructive purposes and to stay away from negative talk. Very few people have mastered this ability. As both talkers and listeners, we have a responsibility to strive to elevate our speech and use it to build others up. Shabbat Shalom.