Shabbat Metzora: Don’t Spread Evil Words

This Shabbat is called “The Great Shabbat”, Shabbat HaGadol, because it is the Shabbat before Pesakh begins. This year the parashah (weekly Torah reading) is Metzora, a word which denotes a malady of skin, clothing or even the walls of one’s house. Like many a problem, it may be only “skin-deep”, or it may have grown beneath the surface.

וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת

the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Lev.14.35)

Traditional midrash hears an ethical echo in this situation: the person who sees something that they suspect to be a problem reports to the priest. They do not say “there is a problem.” They say nir’ah li, “it seems to me” that there is a problem. In other words, do not jump to judgement. Speak of what you know but without assuming facts not, as yet, in evidence.

Why? Torah immediately answers:

וְצִוָּ֨ה הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וּפִנּ֣וּ אֶת־הַבַּ֗יִת בְּטֶ֨רֶם יָבֹ֤א הַכֹּהֵן֙ לִרְא֣וֹת אֶת־הַנֶּ֔גַע וְלֹ֥א יִטְמָ֖א כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּבָּ֑יִת וְאַ֥חַר כֵּ֛ן יָבֹ֥א הַכֹּהֵ֖ן לִרְא֥וֹת אֶת־הַבָּֽיִת׃

The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house.

It’s a loophole born of empathy: in this way the owner does not run the risk of significant personal loss. Here is the heart of much of Jewish judgement: until I see it, I don’t know, and as long as I don’t know, there is no impact. This is the approach of a culture that takes words very seriously. If it is not yet said, it does not yet fully exist – until it is named, it is not fully brought into being.

Words are so powerful that from this context one of Judaism’s most well-known Torah teachings is derived. Metzora, spelled in Hebrew מצרע, looks like two words: מצ and רע. This can be read motzi [shem] ra’, “bringing forth evil [name, i.e. reputation].” 

In the Talmud the Rabbis compared the spread of evil words to the spread of this kind of affliction. 

“Come and see how great is the power of motzi [shem] ra. Whence is this derived? From the account of the scouts: Now if when one utters a false report about trees and stones, this [is the result], then if one utters a false report about his friend, how much more so!” (BT Arakhin 15a)

The Torah recounts in parashat Shelakh l’kha the story of the twelve sent to scout out the land of Israel, who came back with the famous report that the land was full of danger: “The land which we passed through to spy out is a land which consumes its inhabitants!” (Numbers 13.32)  The Israelites believed the scouts’ report – and, more to our point, the scouts thought that they could judge what they saw. They forgot to say nir’ah li, “it seems to me.”

For want of that humility, the Israelites spent forty years wandering. For lack of willingness to slow down and consider what we do not yet know, how much do we hinder and obstruct the path of our own spiritual journey? How often do we assume wrongly about another person’s behavior, out of our own meshugas?

Speaking badly about another person may seem harmless enough, but it can grow deep, beneath the surface of being, to cause real harm. It may spread, and become like a plague. Each of us can refuse to participate in that very real plague – after all, don’t we have enough of them already? – by remembering that we do not know what we see. We can only say nir’ah li, it seems to me. Let’s inquire, and find out more.

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