“Life and Death are in the Hands of the Tongue” (Proverbs 18:21)
(This year, we have two portions this week: a “double portion”. There are 54 Torah portions, but only 50-51 weeks in a Jewish year. Some of the Torah readings are paired up in certain years to make sure that Passover always will occur in the spring.)
As we come off of Passover and prepare for the upcoming spiritual revelation at Mt. Sinai of the Shavuot Holiday, the teachings found in this week’s double portion are more applicable than ever. Not because the portion deals with “leprosy” and how it is cured by the Cohen per se; but because of the realization of what causes the specific type of skin referred to, and how it relates to real freedom as opposed to slavery.
Years ago I was teaching a theology class at LMU when a student came in, and her puffy face and red eyes made it clear she had been crying heavily. I had the students pair off for an assignment so that I could speak with her and see if she was ok. She told me that she had been gossiped about on a website of the time, JuicyCampus.com (which thankfully is now out of business) which was read by most college students. This website allowed anonymous users to post uncensored gossip about anyone on their college campus without any boundaries; and this young woman had been brutally lied about in ways that were devastating to her.
The Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that “lashon hara” (“the evil tongue” aka gossip) is even more deadly than a sword, since it can kill many people even from a great distance. We need to be concerned not only with what we put in our mouths, but what comes out: or too often we can hurt someone like the young woman from that class.
But what does that have to do with our Torah portion, which deals with leprosy; and how does this intersect with both Passover and Shavuot (which begins this year on Sunday evening, May 16)?
We learn through Parsha Behaalotecha (Numbers Chap. 12) as well as in the Talmud (Arachin 16) that this specific type of skin disease discussed in the Torah is the consequence of lashon hara. There we read that Miriam contracts the skin disease because of her gossiping about her sister-in-law. Gossip is like leprosy in many ways: it affects the person who spreads it and makes them “ugly”; it is easily passed and highly contagious, and affects everyone who comes into any contact with it in some way. Our Sages understood leprosy as a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease that is expressed through the mouth based on jealous thoughts.
Sefer Yetzirah teaches that the human faculty associated with the month of Nissan (the month of Pesach) is speech. The Seder itself is an exercise in speech, as we tell stories, ask questions, and learn about the journey from slavery to freedom. It is an exercise in the positive power of speech, but this week’s portion reminds us of the potential negativity that can be caused by the tongue as well. A danger that is so great that we are taught that the tongue is a double edged sword that needs two protective walls (the mouth and teeth). It is only our spiritual awareness, consciousness, and commitment to ethics that prevents that sword from destroying through evil words.
This is why this week’s reading instructs us that the disease of leprosy is to be treated through the actions of the Cohen, the priest. It is a recognition that gossip is dangerous and sickening, and at its root it is a sickness of the spirit. It is only through spiritual self-development that we curtail the darker thoughts that manifest into gossip.
The Passover Seder is an answer to that sickness, the potential of which is in every person. Sefer Yetzirah also teaches that the Hebrew month of Iyyar, which is the majority of the period between Passover and Shavuot, is associated with the human quality of “thought”. Through the experience of the Seder, the eating of the humble Matza and the bitter Maror, and the sharing of the Passover stories we are reminded of how we can use our mouths to teach about freedom. Through the words we say (or write) we have the opportunity to help people (including and especially ourselves) to step out of the slavery of gossip and instead embrace the real freedom of acting with consciousness and integrity. During this time of Counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, we need to be conscious of our thoughts themselves, choosing to take joy in other people rather than think jealous thoughts (which will ultimately lead to the action of gossip).
The opportunities abound at the Seder and throughout this time period as we prepare for Shavuot to help create more consciousness of the power of both thoughts and words. When the teenage boy expresses a misogynistic statement, he can be reminded that the Passover Haggadah teaches, “it is because of the women that we were redeemed from Egypt”. When the non-Jewish member of the family is degraded, a focus can be put on the fact that we all “were strangers in a strange land”. When the poor or homeless are spoken of with disdain, the Seder can remind us that we were all poor and homeless while we were in Egypt, and then again throughout our journey in the desert.
At our Seder, when we get to the Ten Plagues, I always ask everyone to add additional modern plagues and to take more drops of wine out of the glass as they do. If no one else has said it, I make it a point to mention “gossip” as a modern plague…one that creates a visible sickness in our persons and in our society. It is our family tradition to pray for those evil words to be stopped in our lives, and in our time. Each day during this period of preparation for Shavuot we additionally spend time being conscious of any dark or degrading thoughts of other; bringing them to consciousness; and making a conscious choice to transform them into thoughts of respect and joy that will be manifested as “good speech” rather than gossip.
May this time of Counting the Omer as we prepare for Shavuot bring about a cessation in lashon hara, and a true freedom of expression that reflects the best that each of us can be; and may we all gain thoughtful respect for others reflected by kind and gentle words of respect.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
April 16, 2021
4th of Iyar, 5781
19th Day of the Omer