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.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Lift Every Voice

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?  (Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar)
This week we have a Torah double-header. Our parashat hashavua (Torah text for this week) is two: both Tazria and Metzora. Both refer to conditions that can affect the surface of skin or clothes, or even the walls of your house. Some of the conditions turn out not to be serious, and some clearly are; what all have in common is that in the beginning they are mysterious. We’re not sure where the condition comes from or how it will turn out.
it’s curious, and certainly objectionable, that these conditions are considered to signify some moral lesson or failing. We reject the idea that someone who recovers from a skin ailment must bring an atonement gift to G*d, as we can see clearly indicated in Lev 14.19 “the priest shall make expiation for the one being cleansed of affliction.”
Our ancestors the Rabbis also objected to the idea that someone suffering from affliction needed to make atonement. The Talmud does something rather ingenious with this situation in their interpretation of the word for the one suffering from a skin affliction, metzora. The scholar Resh Lakish taught that we should understand this word as a variation on the phrase motzi shem ra’, “one who speaks evil [of another].” (BT Arakhin 15b)
In other words, the real affliction we have to watch out for, and the real contagion we should fear, is that of gossip and other forms of speaking ill of others. Indeed, in any Jewish community that acts upon its ethics, that is an act that requires atonement.
Our tradition holds that we must take great care with the words we speak, as they are powerful and can cause others great distress. From this we also can learn that we should take care to listen carefully to the sincere words offered by anyone and everyone with whom we interact. This idea is at the heart of the I-Thou teaching of the philosopher Martin Buber: to be truly present, in sincerity, in the presence of another person is to listen to their words, and to ensure that they know they are heard. Behind this teaching is a more ancient one – each one of us may be, at any moment, speaking an Eternal Word that needs to be heard by the one listening. Each one of us, we are taught, is a messenger of Eternal Truth to each other, and so we must find a way to pay attention, to quiet down the mind and its endless lists, and listen carefully, lest we miss it.
Think of the people in your life trying to get your attention, trying to share something important and not always knowing the best time or way to get the word to you. Sometimes, no matter how many emails or phone calls or tugs on the sleeve you get, you just can’t be present for the word that is trying to get your attention. Other times, the letter goes to the wrong address, or the writing is hard to understand, or the message is too alien to accept, and we recoil from it, and the messenger.
All around us, human beings lift up their voices: trying to explain, asking for help, expressing loneliness or happiness or pain. May we remember to give the gift we need to receive. May we not turn away from the word that another offers us, that we might be heard as well.