Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: The Elixir of Life

 מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים Mi ha’Ish he’Hafetz Hayim? Who is the one who desires life? – Psalm 34.13

The early Shabbat morning prayers called p’sukei d’zimra (verses of song) are a way for us to  prepare spiritually to pull aside our Zoom veils and seek the presence of holiness together 

They include some rather direct opportunities for us to do a self-check. Are we living our best lives, are we being our best selves, ethically speaking? For example, we often sing this song:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ

mi ha’ish he’hafetz hayim ohev yamim lirot tov?

n’tzor l’shonkha meyra’ usfah-teh-ha midabeyr mirmah

sur meyra’ aseh tov, bakesh shalom l’rodfeyhu

Who wants to live a life of loving and being loved?

Shut your mouth from speaking evil; don’t share negative stories

Instead, turn away from that evil and in so doing you will be doing good, and creating peace

(Psalm 34.13-14)

There is an ancient teaching which compares the one who shares gossip about another – and for Jews, with our very strict standard for “evil speech,” this can mean any story at all that influences one’s estimation of another human being away from the khaf zekhut standard. Khaf zekhut means “giving the benefit of the doubt” and it’s a sine qua non for meaningful spiritual community.

Our parashat hashavua is Tazria-Metzora, a part of Torah that has long been understood to get to the heart of how we poison our relationships, and how to refrain from doing so. This year, our time in COVID-19 quarantine brings a new resonance to this very old teaching. Let’s get at it using our PaRDeS interpretive approach:

  1. P p’shat (“surface level meaning”): a metzora is someone who is suffering from tzara’at, a physically disfiguring condition caused by any one of several different possible illnesses. They may be contagious and, whichever it is, it is certainly the cause of suffering – and sometimes death. 
  1. D drash (investigating more deeply): the word metzora can be read as motzi ra’, “bringing forth evil.” This reading brings to mind the verses from Psalm 13: who wants to live well, love and be loved? the one who avoids evil, ra’. 
  1. R remez (“hint”): what words come out of your mouth that allow evil to flourish, instead of life?

There was a peddler who would go around to towns that were close to Tzippori. The peddler would shout “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” Everyone would crowd around. Rabbi Yannai was sitting and studying Torah and heard the call, “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” [Rabbi Yannai] said, “I want it.” 

The peddler took out a book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse, “Who is the one who desires life?” The peddler pointed out “What is written after it? ‘guard your tongue from evil […] Turn away from evil and do good’.” 

Rabbi Yannai said “All of my days I was reading this verse and I did not know how to interpret it until this peddler came and made it understood – ‘Who is the one who desires life?'” Therefore, at the start of  [parashat Metzora’] Moshe warns Israel and says to them, “This shall be the law for a leper (metzora’)” – the law of the one that gives out a bad name (motzi ra’) [to another]. –  VaYikra Rabbah 16.2

Not sure if you’ve been motzi ra’ this week or this month? Reflect on the time (or times) when you did not remember to give someone else the benefit of the doubt, especially when someone you know personally upset or offended you in some way, or when someone you don’t know personally did something public that you felt free to comment upon. 

Let this be our Shabbat learning, on this 18th day of the Omer count, a day upon which we are taught to consider the nature of our desire for attention against the obligation to be compassionate (Shabbat, the 19th day, will be netzakh in tiferet, a day to consider the eternal nature of compassion – a good day for you to repent of the evil you may have spoken or contributed to by speaking during this week).

It’s not too late to shut our mouths against evil and so much unnecessary contagion, and to choose a loving and life-affirming stay on the planet.

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