This week we will read about the case of the metzora, the person struck with a divinely inflicted skin disease called tzora’as. The Torah tells us that this person is Tame’, ritually impure, and that, moreover, they must walk around announcing their impure status crying out “Impure! Impure!” This might seem a little harsh to us, that someone suffering already from what is probably a very uncomfortable and embarrassing physical condition, should be made to walk around announcing their status. The Sages explain that tzora`at is the physical result of the sin of spreading gossip. Thus, the fact that the metzora must announce his impure status to the world is an example of midah k’neged midah, a punishment that fits the crime—the person who spread derogatory information about others now must spread the same kind of derogatory information about themselves. Perhaps even more than punishment, this experience is meant to help the metzora experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of their own defamatory speech so that they might realize how much pain a little gossip can inflict and hopefully be moved to change their behavior.
What of the fact that we read that the metzora is to announce “Impure! Impure!.” The Torah doesn’t waste words, so why does it repeat the word “impure” twice? The Talmud in Moed Katan (5a) provides a solution—it says we learn from the repetition of the word impure, to stay away, meaning that we must mark graves and other places of impurity so that they will metaphorically speaking call out and warn those who need to maintain a state of ritual purity to stay away. Not only does this interpretation allow us to learn a separate halakha related to the impurity of graves, it also suggests that the metzora calls out “impure! Impure!” not as a punishment, but as a public service.
However, there is yet another way in which we can understand the phrase, “And he shall cry out ‘Impure! Impure!’” The Hebrew phrase “v’tame’ tame’ yikra” could just as easily be parsed, “And the impure one shall cry out ‘Impure!’” meaning that those who are “impure,” who have a fault in themselves, are the ones who go around pointing out the “impurities” or faults of others. There are three practical ways this understanding can help us. The first is so that when people go around pointing out the faults of others, we can remember to take it with a grain of salt. They are telling us much more about themselves than they are about those they are deriding. The second is that when people go around pointing out our faults in a way that we feel is unfair, instead of getting mad, we can try to have compassion on them since they are clearly struggling with some great “impurity” inside themselves.
The third, and most important lesson to take from this is that when we, as happens to all of us, find ourselves tempted to “cry out ‘Impure!’” about others, to criticize others publicly and broadcast their faults, instead of giving into that impulse, we should turn our attention inward and ask “what is it inside of me is reacting to this person this way? Why is it that I feel the need to “call them out?” What is my emotional state when I want to disparage them? Where are those emotions coming from? Are they at their heart about this person or about something else? Can I learn to simply live with this emotion instead of attacking someone else?
May God give us the discipline and the wisdom to engage in this kind of honest self-examination instead of speaking negatively about others, and may we soon be cleansed of the temptation to speak Lashon Hara, to gossip about others.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein