By Rabbi Shelly Donnell & Esther Edelsburg
In the portion Tazria the Torah describes the affliction of leprosy and the process involved in examining the patient by the priest to determine if the signs of the disease are valid. “Adonai said to Moses and Aaron, When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially impure” (Lev. 13:1-3).
And the Torah continues, “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ As long as he has the infection he remains impure. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).
The reaction to the leper is quite extreme, “…let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” Not only was the leper made to suffer the pains of the disease, but the agonies of loneliness, fear and the hatred of society as well. And why? According to the sages, leprosy was associated with wickedness and was thought to be a punishment from God, as described in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah: “This shall be the law of the leper (Lev. 16:2). This is alluded to in what is written, There are six things which Adonai abhors, indeed, seven which are an abomination to Him (Prov. 6:16). …And they are: haughty eyes, a Iying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood; a heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet that are swift in running to do evil; a false witness that breathes out lies, and a person that sows discord among neighbors (Prov. 6:17). R. Johanan said: All these are punished by leprosy” (Vayikra Rabbah 16:1).
The most well known response is that of Rashi on Leviticus 14:4, Why sacrifice two live birds [to purify the person formerly suspected of being a leper]? According to Rashi (quoted as well by the Ramban in his commentary) “Because lesions of leprosy come about as a result of lashon hara (derogatory speech), which is done by chattering, therefore, for the purifying, this person is required to offer birds, that twitter constantly with chirping sounds” (Talmud Arachin 16b).
The connection between leprosy and lashon hara appears as well in the book of Numbers (Parashat Beha’alot’kha), “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has Adonai spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And Adonai heard this. (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) At once Adonai said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.’ So the three of them came out” (Numbers 4:1-4)
“When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam—leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; and he said to Moses, ‘Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.’ So Moses cried out to Adonai, ‘O God, please heal her!’ Adonai replied to Moses, ‘If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.’ So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back” (Numbers 12:10-15).
Another story associating leprosy with punishment for one of the since accounted for in Vayikra Rabbah is the story of King Uzziah who was stricken with leprosy because “he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly and trespassed against Adonai…and leprosy broke out on his forehead” (see 2 Chronicles 26). There is also the case of how David cursed the house of Joab with hereditary leprosy (2 Samuel 328ff).
The sages suggested that leprosy was an appropriate punishment for lashon hara because one who spreads gossip and slander does so in secret whereas leprosy stands out (and cannot be hidden), a kind of tit-for-tat. And, it should be noted as well, that in the ancient world, leprosy was the most feared of all diseases, it literally tore apart the fabric of society. So, too, lashon hara is most destructive to society.
- Is leprosy an appropriate metaphor for lashon hara? Why or why not?
- The Psalmist said, the one who desires life will “Guard your tongue from evil; your lips from deceitful speech” (Psalm 34:14). What other dangers ― antithetical to life ― might be caused by lashon hara?
- Is there a disease today that people relate to in a manner similar to how the ancients in biblical times responded to leprosy? How do we, as a modern society conduct ourselves towards those stricken by such diseases?
- If you have time, take a look at this week’s Haftarah (2 Kings 7:3-20), it contains a story about four lepers who, it turns out, save the city of Samaria from starvation. There it doesn’t speak of punishment. What can we learn from this story?