Metzora: Positive Speech

Parshat Metzora does not state explicitly whether tzara’at is a punishment, and if so what for. However, the commentaries understand tzara’at to be a punishment for lashon hara (speaking ill of others). I would like to share the following explanation for this, provided by the great Tanach scholar Nechama Leibowitz z”l, whose 25th yahrzeit was this past week. 

Nechama, as she was fondly called by her students, combined literary analysis with deep reading of midrash and medieval commentaries in her teaching. In her parsha books, which are a staple in many Modern Orthodox homes, she cites two other biblical stories and their interpretations, which link tzara’at with speaking lashon ha’ra. When tzara’at appears on Moshe’s hand in Shemot, it follows him speaking negatively about bnei Yisrael. In Bamidbar, when Miriam speaks badly about Moshe, she gets tzara’at. These literary connections support the association between tzara’at and slander.

The midrash reinforces this by reading the name “Me-tzo-ra” (one afflicted with tzara’at) as connected to “motzi-shem-ra,” spreading evil talk. The Talmud explains that the person afflicted with tzara’at must be isolated because speaking lashon ha’ra has potential dangers for human relationships and society. By remaining alone for at least seven days a person has time to internalize this. 

Negative speech can become viral and spread negativity like tzara’at. Conversely, positive speech leads to goodness and redemption. We can encourage, console, and strengthen each other through speech. Metzorah is read just before Pesach this year, when the haggada and its discussion is the paradigm of positive speech. The Hasidic masters read the word Pesach as “peh-sach,” the mouth speaks. In Egypt there was an “exile of speech”, an inability to express ourselves truly and positively. Pesach is the time of redemption of speech, speech which leads to friendships, strong communities, faith and commitment between God and the Jewish people. With prayers for healing and strength. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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