Metzora-Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard

Sometimes Something Odd Leads Us to Something Profound

April 12, 2008 - 7 Nissan 5768

Parashat Metzora
Leviticus 14:1-15:33
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20

Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard
Adat Ari El
Vice President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Leviticus 14:35 has an odd, puzzling syntax that brings us to a profound insight about Lashon Hara/gossip. Parshat Metzorah teaches an assortment of laws concerning impurity related to bodily fluids and to tzara'at -- an eruptive plague that resembles leprosy and can afflict either people or buildings. Towards the end of chapter 14, we read that if tzara'at appears on one's home that person goes to the priest and says: "Something like a plague became visible to me in the house."

The rabbis were puzzled by this syntax. Why not just be direct and declare, "There is a plague" rather than, "There is something like a plague"?

The obvious answer is that only the priest who has the necessary training can definitely declare whether or not something is to be classified as a "plague". But rabbinic tradition eliminates that option when it states that even if a person is an expert at such classification, he should not make a definite statement about his own house.

One colleague of mine suggests that perhaps the message conveyed by this particular syntax is that inasmuch as the Talmud states that these plagues are to be understood as divine punishments for specific transgressions, the statement: "There is a plague on my house", is essentially an act of self-incrimination and our tradition holds that a person may not incriminate himself.

In his book, Living Each Week, Rabbi Twerski retells the following tale: The Chofetz Chaim (a renowned 19th century teacher who's most famous for his elucidation on the laws of Lashon Hara) was once stopped by a stranger who asked directions to the home of the great gaon (revered scholar) and tzaddik, the Chofetz Chaim. In a fit of whimsy or humility, rather than just tell him that he was the Chofetz Chaim, he directed the man to his house and said, "But he is not such a great gaon and tzaddik." The stranger became irate and slapped the Chofetz Chaim’s face. "How dare you speak like that of the greatest sage of our time!" he said.

Later, the man discovered that the person he struck was none other than the Chofetz Chaim himself. He apologized profusely but the Chofetz Chaim said, "There is no need for an apology. After all, it was my honor you were defending. But this incident has taught me something. I have been stressing the prohibition of speaking disparagingly of others. Now I know that one may not speak disparagingly of oneself."

Lashon Hara is often translated as gossip; but gossip is directed at and about others. A better translation would be "disparaging talk" for, as the Chofetz Chaim himself learns, one can commit Lashon Hara against oneself. Such disparaging talk about ourselves comes from our lack of a sense of our own worth and such talk is sinful.

We have no right to put ourselves down and make ourselves out to be less than who we are, any more than we should make ourselves out to more than we are. We are each made in the image of God and that simply needs to be enough since there cannot be anything more than that.