Double parsha Tazria-Metzora mostly addresses the strange skin disease called tzaraat (often mistranslated as leprosy.) The Talmud explains that tzaraat affected people who committed the sin of lashon hara (lit. “evil speech.”) Tzaraat was a punishing wake-up call for individuals who spoke badly about others.
Tazria describes symptoms and identifying marks of tzaraat, while Metzora explains the purification process for those afflicted. The Torah states “This is the law” in relation to tzaraat five separate times in Tazria-Metzora, leading the Midrash to conclude that “whoever speaks lashon hara is tantamount to violating the five books of the Torah.”
Indeed, every one of the Five Books of Moses contains cautionary references to lashon hara, including (but not limited to):
Genesis: Adam blames Eve for eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:12), demonstrating ingratitude to God for giving him a wife. If Adam had instead apologized and accepted responsibility, might he have been forgiven instead of expelled from the Garden of Eden?
Exodus: Two Hebrew slaves report Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster to Pharaoh (Ex. 2:13), leading Moses to flee and, according to Rashi, worry that the Jews wouldn’t survive as a people if they were going to turn on each other.
Leviticus: In addition to the long sections about tzaraat, the Torah explicitly commands us not to be talebearers (Lev. 19:16). The book’s Hebrew name, Vayikra, means “And He called,” referring to the intimate way God communicates with Moses and the Jewish people. Evil speech distances us from the Holy One.
Numbers: The spies sent by Moses to scout out the Holy Land come back with a negative report (Num. 13:32), throwing the people into a panic and causing them to spend forty years in the desert.
Deuteronomy: The book’s Hebrew name, Devarim, means “words.” The Torah ends with Moses’ final holy words to the Jewish people, including another exhortation to be especially careful in observing the laws of tzaraat (Deut. 24:8-9).
How can we break the habit of gossiping about others? The first step is to refine our thoughts. Instead of seeing the worst in our fellow humans, let’s look for the best in them. When we see good, we will speak good, or not speak in the first place, which is often (usually?) the best choice of all.
Image: “The Metzora Being Purified With Two Birds” by Simon Fokke c. 1750