Parasha Metzorah

Life and Death are in the Hands of the Tongue A midrash tells us that the King of Persia took ill and was advised by his doctors to drink the milk of a lioness in order to be cured. A man came before the King and volunteered to bring the king fresh lion's milk. The man asked the King for ten goats. He took the goats and traveled to where the lions lived. On the first day, when he was sure that a lioness saw him, he threw her a goat from far away. The next day he came closer… by the tenth day he had won her trust and managed to obtain a full jug of lion's milk. On his way back he had a vision; different parts of his body had a major argument. The legs said, "None of the other limbs can compare to us. If we would not have transported the body, it would have been impossible to obtain this milk." The hands argued that they were without parallel. If they hadn't performed their role gently and efficiently, it would have been impossible to obtain the milk. The heart argued that if it had not come up with the idea of the goats the entire project would have been impossible. The tongue argued that if it had not spoken up, all would have been for naught. All the other limbs were enraged at the tongue, "How do you even dare to make any claim? You are hidden away in a dark and dank place, and you lay flat on your back all your days!" The tongue told them, "You will see, this very day you will all agree that I am your master." After the man heard all this, he went to the king and told him, "Your majesty, here is the milk of a donkey!  The king sat on his throne in disbelief. This man had been sent on a mission for the milk of a lioness and he returns with the milk of a donkey?  The King demanded that the messenger should be hung. On the way to the execution, all his limbs began to cry. The tongue told all the complaining parts of his body, "Didn't I tell you that you are all helpless? You see what trouble I can cause if I want to?  If I now save you, will you all acknowledge my superiority?" They all agreed. The man then asked the executioner to let him speak with the king once again. His request was granted. He spoke soothingly to the king and convinced him to drink the milk, as it would surely cure him. The king tried the milk and was cured, and the man was spared. Indeed as it says in The Book of Proverbs "Death and Life are in the Hands of the Tongue"! (Mishlei/Proverbs 18:21) (Story adapted from
The prophetess Miriam certainly learned this lesson the hard way. In the Book of Numbers, she speaks out against her brother, Moses, and G-d strikes her with a scaly white skin disease that leaves her looking quite dead.  Moses prays to G-d to heal her, but she must live outside of the camp for seven days before she is healed and readmitted into Israelite society.   From this episode with Miriam, the sages deduced that the heavenly punishment for slander and gossip was “Metzorah”, a skin disease that is the topic of this week’s Torah reading. The person afflicted with Metzorah was put outside the camp  — not to prevent the disease from spreading , but to prevent  the spread of the gossip – at least according to the Rabbis!  It also was intended to encourage the person to think about what he or she had done. These reflections would make the slanderer experience the sense of shame and isolation that gossip inflicts upon its victims. A slanderer is called a “rachil” in Hebrew. This word is related to the Hebrew word for peddler. The Jerusalem Talmud explains: Just as a peddler travels from city to city selling his wares, so the slanderer or gossip goes from one person to another saying, “So and so said this” and “I heard such and such about so and so.”  Maimonides teaches that even though what they say may be true, gossip “destroys the world.” In this sense he   believes that it is a worse sin than murder, idolatry or sexual immorality. In our own time, with technologies at the tip of our fingers, , fortunes have been made on gossip and slander.  King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, foresaw it all when he warned us in the Bible, “Even in your thought, you shall not curse a king, nor in your bedrooms shall you curse a wealthy man, for the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice, and the winged creature will tell the matter.”  In other words – Twitter!  Today, there is no need for the gossip to laboriously go from person to person spreading their poison. Today, thoughts emanating from the privacy of one’s den can race around the world in literally no time at all through the miracle of that little bird called Twitter.  A few months ago I saw Robert Osborne interview Kim Novak on television. She is of course a 1950’s film icon. She grew up in Chicago in a poor family, and made her way to Hollywood where she met with immediate success in motion pictures.  In very moving interview, she spoke candidly of her hunger for the love of a mentally ill father who was always rejecting.  She spoke of her own struggles with bi-polar disorder. Celebrity interviewers often mine for behind the scene scoops and juicy revelations about other Hollywood stars. When she was asked by Robert Osborne about famously difficult actors and directors she had worked with, Kim Novak had nothing but nice things to say about them.  At the end of the interview, I felt that I had gotten to know her a little. She was  open, undefensive and sincere in her responses to questions about her personal and public life. So it unsettled and pained me to read that her appearance at the Academy Awards a month ago set off a flurry of malicious activity with Twitter.  The 81 year old actress, appeared with Mathew McConaughy to present the award for the best animated film. . She reportedly walked stiffly and struggled to speak. The Twitter world exploded with unkind jokes and cruel remarks about her physical appearance. The newspapers picked up the story the next day and reported the slandering remarks over and over and over again. Why did the newspapers report on this? Gossip sells newspapers! We want to read it!  But the Rambam cautions us – Gossip kills three people — the one who says it, the one hears it, and the one about whom it is said – but the one who hears it is harmed more than the one who says it. Even hearing or reading about it damages us spiritually.  The psalms tell us that the person who desires life should guard their lips from speaking evil of others.  In doing so, the psalmist tells us, that person will learn to cherish each day and live in peace.  Those who gossip and speak ill of others take something precious away from our lives and theirs. Like second-hand smoke, gossip harms not only the speaker but also those who hear it. Let us resolve to be careful with our words. Let us try our best to find good things to say about others, period. For, as we remember, “Death and Life are in the Hands of the Tongue”.