In the weeks before Passover we come in our weekly readings to what many refer to as, “The distasteful parts of the Torah.” These are the passages dealing with skin diseases, which placed a person in a state of ritual impurity.
It s hard for us to find meaning in these passages, but our rabbinic Sages crafted a way to make these lessons among the most inspiring in Scripture. Taking the Hebrew word for leprosy מצורע — metzora (something quite different from Hansen’s Disease which we call Leprosy today), the rabbis taught that the disease was the appropriate punishment for the מוציארע — mot zee ra — one who abuses his or her power of speech.
Our Sages understood that our ability to communicate as we do is one of the powers that gives us human beings the ability to have dominion over the earth. It is an awesome power that can do either so much good, or so much harm.
That is why our Rabbis preceded the main and longest section of our prayer service, the tefilah, with these exquisite words from Psalm 51: ” Eternal One, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your glory!” At the end of the tefilah as well we remind ourselves twice more of how much good or harm our words can do. Based on a verse from Psalm 34 we pray, “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking evil,” and from Psalm 19, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Eternal One, my rock and my salvation!”
In their genius our Sages 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 the severity of which the rabbis compare to murder.
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 that is the way it is with the words that we speak. Once they 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.