Finding meaning for our lives today in the passages in Leviticus dealing with skin diseases is a formidable challenge, but our rabbinic Sages were up to the task.
Looking at the Hebrew word for leprosy, מצורע – metzora, the rabbis taught that the disease was the appropriate punishment for the mot zee ra — one who abuses the power of speech.
Our Sages understood that our ability to speak is an awesome power that can cause either much good or much harm.
In their genius they interpreted the most esoteric passages of the Torah as a warning against one of the most common and most pernicious of sins, slander and gossip!
The gossip, our Sages taught, diminishes three people, the one spoken about, the one saying it, and the one who listens. It is a sin, which the rabbis compare to murder. (B. Arakin 15b)
A favorite story tells of a little girl whose gossiping cost her all her friends. Her mother took her to see the rabbi to see if she could help. “Take a pillow,” the rabbi instructed, “cut it open and scatter its feathers.” The child did so and returned to the rabbi who told her, “Now pick up all the scattered feathers and sew them back into the pillow.”
“But rabbi,” the child answered “that’s impossible,”
“Of course it is,” the rabbi answered, “but once words leave our lips they can never be brought back. So take care to use your precious power of speech to uplift and encourage, not to speak evil and tear others down.”
It is one of the most important lessons the little girl and all of us can ever learn.