The Pestilence of Gossip

by Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

Originally published on April 4, 2014 by The Chicago Jewish News.

Torah Portion: Metzorah  Leviticus 14.1-16.4

This shall be the Torah as regards the Leper. (Leviticus 4.1)

Purge Me with Hyssop so that I may become pure. (Psalm 51.9)

by Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

Originally published on April 4, 2014 by The Chicago Jewish News.

Torah Portion: Metzorah  Leviticus 14.1-16.4

This shall be the Torah as regards the Leper. (Leviticus 4.1)

Purge Me with Hyssop so that I may become pure. (Psalm 51.9)

It is no surprise to rabbis when parents are concerned that the Torah portion for their child’s bat or bar mitzvah turns out to be a text largely devoted to priestly rituals, including potions, sacrifice, isolation and body shaving as a means of confronting a skin affliction usually translated as leprosy. How, morally, spiritually or even aesthetically edifying can this possibly be for the child, or, for that matter, for the congregation?

In modern times many rabbis have resorted to the “medical science before medical science” proposition that Jews can be proud that the ancient priests seemed to have anticipated modern-type “diagnosis” and “quarantine.”

But way back in ancient times our sages were also concerned to find a moral or spiritual message in this text. For there is a long, in fact, millennial tradition of interpretation to which most rabbis today refer in preaching when the portion called Metzorah comes along. It is based on the coincidence that the word for “leprosy,” “Metzorah” sounds, in Hebrew, almost exactly like the phrase in Hebrew for a gossiper, which is Motzih Rah. According to this interpretation, the text, in speaking of leprosy, is actually referring to the sin of lashon harah, “the evil tongue.”

Thus the entire text of our portion is changed by this strategy of interpretation into a teaching about the plague of the enduring evil of gossip, enduring because it is often practiced, engaged in by human beings all through time, also because of its lasting effect and one of the sins most difficult to eliminate or repair.

A well-known Jewish story compares gossiping to taking a big feather pillow outside on a blustery day, slashing it open and shaking out the feathers so that they fly far and wide in all directions. It is very hard to make up for the sin of gossip because it is just as difficult to catch up with gossip once it is uttered and goes everywhere as it is to find every single feather and return it. And since to atone with G-d on Yom Kippur you have first to make up for what you have done wrong, it is not only a pernicious evil, it is a plague like an infectious skin disease, perhaps worse, and harms the moral and spiritual status of the perpetrator as well.

In our time — the age of the internet, Facebook and “digital hits,” it is an even more impossible task to limit the extent and therefore the harm of gossip. We know of much insidious, gratuitous, gossip by teen-agers on the internet, attacks especially on their most vulnerable fellow students that has led to such shame and depression on the part of the victims that they change schools or move out of the city; and far, far more tragic, even commit suicide. The infectious plague of gossip, especially in our time, is, then, a subject worthy of a religious service during which there takes place a bar or bat mitzvah.

Important as this is, there is an even deeper message in the Torah that for some unaccountable reason has been ignored or unnoticed in current rabbinic preaching. But it was not been ignored in the ancient and medieval rabbinic interpretations of this very same portion.

A great rabbinic tradition asks a deeper question: What is it that makes people gossip? The answer is learned from the healing procedures for leprosy. Remember that ancient rabbis interpreted the healing required by the Torah to apply to gossip. The ancient rabbis teach that a person who engages in gossip is doing so due to their loss of a sense of the other person’s feeling. And this is due to such arrogant self-aggrandizement, to haughty self-advancement that the feelings of others do not matter to the gossiper.

Our great commentator, Rashi (Troyes France, 1040-1105), based on a comment in a very ancient rabbinic text, the Sifra, tells us that this is the reason that dye from an insect or worm and the lowly herb, hyssop, are used in the healing of the leper, that means the gossiper, because these symbolize the kind of humility that has to be restored to the gossiper. There is a period of isolation so that the gossiper can contemplate within himself, inquire within why he or she has committed this sin. In every period of the Jewish tradition beginning with Scripture and the ancient rabbis, throughout, the moral discipline of lessening the selfish ego has been emphasized. The great Hillel himself said, “My self-exaltation is my self-degradation.”

A very similar teaching is underlined in the very same portion referring to another kind of selfishness. It is a parallel reinforcement in the Torah portion of this emphasis on humble care for others on another level. After dealing with leprous infections of persons (gossip), the Torah portion turns to a kind of mold-like infection on the surface and in the walls of houses as well. Noting that the Torah describes the owner of the infected house as one who considers that “the house belongs to him (alone),” the Talmud (Yoma 11b) says that this is a reference to an attitude on the part of the owner of a house and everything in it that it is his alone and that he has no obligation to share any of the substance of “the house,” his wealth, his property, his income with anyone else, either for the well-being of the general community or for those less materially fortunate than he. This is an important interpretation today because it is a not uncommon view among those who like many of the “trickle-down” theories. One-percenters today don’t want to raise the minimum wage or extend help to the unemployed or provide meals for the hungry.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman in the Stone Chumash puts it strongly: “Such a person displays a breath of heresy. He thinks that his property is his alone, acquired solely by his own efforts, and that no one else is entitled to enjoy the benefits of his personal success. But the house and the money and the success are G-d-given! The same G-d who gave him what he has, wants him to share with others.” (Tzror Hamor)

Published with the author’s permission.

Related Articles