Yom Shabbat, 23 Av 5779
Saturday, 24 August 2019
Parashat Metzora 2014

Parashat Metzora
Rabbi Monique Mayer
4 April 2014

A woman complained to a friend,

·"She told me that you told her the secret I told you not to tell her."

·"Well," replied her friend in a hurt tone, "I told her not to tell you I told her."

"Oh dear!" sighed the first woman. "Well, don't tell her I told you that she told me.”
This brain-bending anecdote illustrates how even a little gossip can be hurtful to relationships.·Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra: One who indulges in gossip is guilty of denying the existence of God and God's commands. Such a one is punished with·tsara’at (Arakin 15b).·Tsara’at--commonly and erroneously translated as leprosy-- was understood by the Sages to be a manifestation of Divine punishment, a logical consequence of gossip. Miriam is stricken with·tsara’at after making disparaging remarks about Moses and his wife (Num 12:1-16).· She is then sent outside the camp for a week; the community waits until Miriam is readmitted to the camp before moving on.· As Progressive Jews we reject the notion of a God who punishes any behaviour with an infectious disease. We understand that the causes of such disease have rational, biological explanations, even if we don’t yet know what they are. But this doesn’t preclude studying the biblical approach totsara’at and its treatment to find relevance.
The word gossip comes from the old English word "God-sib"--a close relative bound by ritual ties, a beloved intimate, and there is a ritual aspect to gossip, which begins with chit chat and goes straight to the “news”. In the American musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” the opening sequence has one teenager after another calling with the latest buzz about Hugo and Kim, two young people who just got together
Hi Margie!·
·Hi Alice.
What’s the story, Morning Glory?
What’s the word, Hummingird?
Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?
Gossip is fun; it gives you something to talk about! Gossip about a difficult teacher or boss can build camaraderie between you and your colleagues. Gossip about a friend’s negative business experience helps us to avoid repeating the episode ourselves. And, gossip can even distract us from own troubles by shifting the attention to someone else. Unfortunately, gossip can also be extremely destructive. One of my favourite illustrations of this point is from the fictional world of Doctor Who. In one episode, the Prime Minister--against the instructions of the Doctor--gives the order to shoot down a retreating alien spaceship. She argues that there would come a time·when the Doctor would not be able to protect Earth and that she must do what she can to defend it. The Doctor reacts furiously, and warns her that he can bring her down with just six words.
Can you guess what they are?
The Doctor walks over to the Prime Minister’s aide and whispers: "Don't you think she looks tired?" By the end of the episode, the Prime Minister is seen facing rumours of ill-health and a vote of no confidence, and eventually resigns.·The Sages in Talmud (Bavli Arachin 15b) said that gossip figuratively kills three people: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is said. Uttering those six words “Don’t you think she looks tired?”, the Doctor planted a seed of doubt, ultimately destroying the Prime Minister’s career. Those six words also destroyed the faith of the aide who previously had absolute confidence in a very courageous woman. And the words destroyed part of the Doctor because being right and being in control overrode any other consideration, including the human need for safety and autonomy.
The authors of the Bible were keenly aware of the damaging effects of gossip and its ability to destroy individuals and communities. They teach us in Leviticus 19:16,·"Lo telekh rachil b'ameikha"·- Do not go about as·a talebearer among your people - and, later, "Lo ta'amod al dam re'eikha"·- do not stand upon (allow the shedding of) the blood of your fellow.·The talebearer turns one person against another by passing along rumours. The one who “stands on the blood” does not challenge or quarantine the talebearer, but stands idly by as the tale is repeated. Both of these sins cause spiritual damage because they infect the community, just as·tsara'at·threatened to do.· In Temple times, the priest, invested with medical and spiritual authority, identified·tsara'at·and sent the infected person-- the metzora·--·out of the community so the infection could be contained and the person could heal on both a physical and a spiritual level. After the·metzora·was clear of infection and went through a period of purification, the priest conducted an elaborate ceremony with with several offerings for reparation and purification. The ritual was the mechanism by which the individual could be eventually reinstated and fully accepted back into the community.
We retain elements of the purification ritual, although they’re not formalised. Those who disrupt the community by gossip or actions can be effectively shut out through silence or something more direct. And the offenders may go through a time of self-reflection, penitence, purification. But we now lack a communal mechanism for reintegrating people and enabling the community to move on together. Instead, ex-offenders often find themselves permanently “quarantined” or ostracised; they may have changed, but the community continues to see them as what they were. We have no prescribed formula for them to make reparations, purify themselves, and come back into the fold.
There are individuals who have left our communities because they continued to be the subject of gossip, reproach and ridicule long after they made changes in their behaviour and their lives. Each time this happens, we lose more than a member. We lose the opportunity for our community to heal the damage and rebuild relationships. In the time of the Temple, the priest facilitated this process through prescribed ritual and sacrifice. We have rituals for life cycle events--birth, brit, bar and bat mitzvah,·marriage, death. What would it mean for there to be a ritual or mechanism to support the transition for who someone was an offender to who they have now become?··Imagine what it might mean for a community to devise its own ritual for reintegration, supporting the "metsora"·to enable him to move back into the community.·What might that ritual look like? Would it be public or private? Who would be present? Might there be specific actions for the "metzora"·to take after the ritual?
I am well-aware that the nature of the offence may have a bearing on how a community needs to address reintegration. I also believe strongly that the best way to help people make permanent changes in their lives is through the support and love of their extended family, the community.· I do not offer any answers, but it is my hope that this d'var Torah·might help communities to begin a conversation.