By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
In this week’s parshah, Parshat Tazria/Metzorah, we are taught about tzara’at, a spiritual sickness which had physical symptoms. If a person would get a certain type of blemish, they would be taken to the priest for a diagnosis.
The verse (13:2) makes a point of saying that they were taken, and the Ibn Ezra (a medieval Torah commentator) points out that the person was taken to the priest even against his or her own will.
The afflicted person was taken to the priest and not to a doctor, because the cause of the disease was spiritual in nature, not physical. The diagnosis, therefore, needed to reflect the spiritual fault, rather than physical manifestation of the disease. Our tradition teaches us that this disease was usually a punishment for interpersonal misconduct and speaking negatively about other people.
This type of behavior is one of the most difficult to avoid. It is hard to refrain from speaking about people in general, and it is even harder to resist listening to gossip when it is being spoken around us. We are often tempted to believe that just speaking about someone is not harmful at all. We tell ourselves that we’re not actually doing anything wrong because the action is done through speech, there is nothing tangible and we don’t see how it is harmful.
The laws of tzara’at teach us that everything we do has an effect, even if we don’t see it. Furthermore, sometimes the way in which we treat others is offensive to the people around us. No one trusts a person who is known to be a gossip. The way in which gossiping affects our relationships is reflected in the laws of tzara’at as well.
We may be oblivious to how the way in which we treat others is reflected in our personalities, but other people are not. Therefore, even if the person who had been afflicted with tzara’at would not go to the priest for a diagnosis on their own, other people had the right to force them to go against their will.
No one likes being around such extreme negativity, but unfortunately the people who are being the negative force in the community are not always aware of what they are doing, so it becomes a communal obligation to fix the problem.
It is difficult to correct a person’s behavior without offending them, but if we are at least aware that there is a problem and that it shouldn’t just be ignored, then we can think of ways to make the situation better.
For instance, we can use this teaching to reflect on how we are being a negative influence on others and fix the problem ourselves, without having to be told by someone else. Or we can try to gently move conversations in a more positive and productive direction when a social interaction devolves into gossiping.
But one thing we should not do is delude ourselves into thinking that this type of negative behavior is not going to have a negative effect on us and on our community.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.