Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59; Parashat Hashavua for Shabbat, April 13, 2024

In the Jewish religious imagination words have an awesome power. God created the Universe with words, “God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:2). God’s revelation of Torah at Sinai came about through spoken words, “God spoke all these words, saying:” (Exodus 20:1), and then continues with the Ten Commandments. “The Ten Commandments,” is actually the Christian designation of the revelation. In Hebrew they are called Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances. Thus morality also came into the world through the spoken words. 

While words can create they can also destroy. We have witnessed the use of language to destroy entire political systems, pave the path to war, and create an environment that makes genocide possible. The Nazis were masters at this manipulation and remain the personification of evil. We also know, all too well, how language can be employed to hurt others and break down their self-confidence and self-esteem. This is the reason that gossip is considered such a toxic and sinful behavior. 

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria and explores the social and ritual impact of contracting skin disease (tzora’at in Hebrew). Our sages suggest that skin disease was an outside manifestation or punishment for gossip. They made a pun on the name of the disease by saying, tzora’ah is a punishment for motzi shem rah, bringing out a bad name or gossiping about someone. They also said that gossip hurts three people, the one who is gossiped about, the one who spreads the gossip, and the one that hears the gossip. 

Whether you believe, as our ancestors did, that disease is a punishment for social wrongs, it is clear that we Jews give words great power, to to build up or to destroy. It’s worth thinking about what we want to say and how we want to use our power of speech, for good or for ill, before we next speak.