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This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’at, on the day of his cleansing, he shall be brought to the Kohen — Lev. 14:2

I don’t at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back.
It makes me far too conceited — Oscar Wilde

This week’s Torah reading (outside Israel) is the double portion of Tazria-Metzora, which many of us struggle to decipher as it gives great detail about a long departed affliction known as tzara’at. Tzara’at is often mistranslated as leprosy, as both can affect the skin, but they are in reality very different maladies.

Our sages explain that tzara’at was not simply a skin disease or discoloration of the skin – this was a disease that could even affect clothing, furniture and buildings. Furthermore, they explain that the transmission of this disease was caused by spiritual bad practice, rather than physical, although the symptoms were very definitely physical.

The Talmud (Arachin 16a) lists the sins which led to being afflicted with tzara’at, and first and foremost is the sin of Lashon Hara – gossip, talking ill of others. Also in the list is arrogance, a primary cause of tzara’at and if truth be told a primary cause of Lashon Hara too … the more arrogant we become, the easier it is to speak badly about others.

When Maimonides discusses character formation he advises to walk the middle path, avoiding extremes of behavior. For example, he recommends not being overly materialistic or overly ascetic, but to attempt to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. When it comes to arrogance and anger, however, his advice is different. In those traits Maimonides recommends extreme behavior — avoidance. These are such negative attributes that they are to be avoided almost entirely.

So what was the cure for this tzara’at disease? Which antibiotic?

The cure was effected in a few stages. First the person was banished to a place outside the community where there was no contact with other people for a week. The second stage is difficult to understand — a Kohen takes some cedar wood and hyssop, tied together with red thread, holds it together with a live bird and dips it into a bowl of water. Some of the water is then sprinkled on the person who had tzara’at. The final stages involved shaving all body hair and immersing in a mikvah (a natural body of water, pool or spring).

This whole process seems inexplicable, partially because we are used to ailments that have physical causes and physical cures. We pop a tablet, or get an injection and expect the medical magic to start working … we are not used to spiritual sickness and cure. But even so the purification process described here seems very strange … why the bird, the cedar, the hyssop, the shaving, the mikvah … ?

The Sages explain that what we are seeing here is a retraining exercise. As the sinner undergoes the purification stages the hope is that this will be a complete rehabilitation process, that he will understand the cause and effect of his behavior, and will be very

unlikely to re-offend. This lack of recidivism will not be out of fear of punishment, but from a deep understanding of the dynamics of what have occurred.

It is crucial for the person to realise that arrogance was their downfall. It was arrogance that led them to speak disparagingly about someone else, or to spread slander about them, and the “cure” is to remove that arrogance. The first stage of this cure is isolation: It is difficult to be arrogant when you are alone, banished to the outskirts without friends or family … no one even to talk to.

After a week of silent contemplation, it is time for some visual symbolism to drive the message home. The piece of cedar — a tall tree representing arrogance — is paired with a “humble” piece of hyssop, and bound with red thread. The Hebrew word for this is “tolaa’t” literally translated as a “worm” of red thread. The haughty cedar, now bound with the lowly hyssop and the “worm” of thread, is dipped into water with a live bird. The bird symbolises this sinner’s transgression … he sinned by gossiping too much, by chattering, and so the chattering bird is part of his healing process. [Nowadays people slander one another on Twitter, so a bird would be even more appropriate!] The bird is then set free.

The final healing stage is shaving the body hair before immersion in a mikvah. These actions also serve to bring the sinner down to a much healthier level of humility, replacing any prior arrogance. The shaving is mildly humiliating, and the mikvah immersion is a total removal of self; when you are surrounded on all sides by water, momentarily unable to breathe, you are very close to not existing at all. Exiting the water is then almost a rebirth, hopefully in a more humble frame of mind.

Our friend is now ready to return home to his family and friends.

One can imagine that a society where gossip was punished in such a drastic manner would be a much happier one. After a few such episodes people would be very, very careful to refrain from gossip and slander, aware of the consequences.

Sadly, we live in an era of unprecedented gossip and chatter. Never before in history has it been so easy to communicate so quickly to so many people. One hasty comment typed in error can be read in every corner of the globe within milliseconds … by billions of people. The gossip industry is stronger than ever, with the tabloid press gossiping about celebrities for their very existence. If tzara’at applied today would there be room outside the city for all those afflicted!?

We may not be able to change the world but we can change our world. We can ensure that in our conversations we steer clear of lashon hara, of slander and gossip and we can refrain from reading websites or magazines which thrive on precisely that.

As the saying goes: Live so that you wouldn’t mind selling the family parrot to the town gossip!

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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