“When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest.” — Leviticus 13:2
The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Tazria-Metzora, from Leviticus 12:1—15:33. Tazria means “conceived,” and Metzora means “diseased.” The Haftorah is from 2 Kings 7:3–20.
Anyone who has ever spent time at the school or neighborhood playground has undoubtedly heard this retort before: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” However, anyone who has been verbally abused can tell you, it’s simply untrue. While kids can learn to recover from such verbal assaults, the fact still remains: words can hurt.
Most of this week’s Torah reading centers around a spiritual malady that presents itself as a physical disease. It is a disease that can affect a person’s possessions, home, and eventually, body. The person who is afflicted with such a disease is called a metzora in Hebrew. The term is a contraction of three other Hebrew words: motzi-shem-ra, which means “spoke badly about another person.” This reveals the crime of the afflicted – one who uses words to harm another person.
While we know words can be hurtful, is the offense really that bad? After all, words are just words. Sure, they may sting for a moment, but then they are gone with the wind. Aren’t they?
A story is told about a man who went around slandering the rabbi of his town. After some time, the man regretted his actions and asked the rabbi for forgiveness, saying he would do anything to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it up in order to let the feathers scatter in the wind. The man did as was told and then returned to the rabbi.
The rabbi said, “Now go and collect all of the feathers.” The man replied, “But that’s not possible!” Then the rabbi made his point: “And so it is with words. Once they leave your mouth, it is impossible to retract them and who knows how far they will spread.”
This is why the Bible views the sin of speaking badly about others as such a serious offense, even equating it to a disease. Words are compared to arrows; once shot, their direction is no longer in our control, and their effect can be deadly. The tongue is so powerful a weapon, that God created two gates to contain it – one is our teeth, the other our lips. We need to carefully consider our words and think before we open our mouths to speak.
After all, broken bones can heal, but hurtful words go on forever.