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Parashat Tazriah-Metzora

April 18, 2023
1 Iyyar 5783
Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33, Numbers 28:9 -15

Dear Friends,

What we say and how we say it makes a difference. So much of what we say these days is done in short bursts of writing, be it via text or email. No matter how many emojis are used, do we ever get the tone of the speaker exactly right? Is the speaker able to transmit the meaning behind their words with clarity? These are examples of those with the best of intentions. What a difference it makes to be face to face.

This week’s double portion Tazria-Metzora, "She Bears Seed/Infected One" (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33), is often explored through the lens of language and its misuse, even though what is being described in the portion never mentions the word language. The rabbis discussed rules around different of types of physical pollution (things that are unfamiliar to us and clearly to them as well) and saw in these Torah portions an opportunity to explore the ways in which our use of language has the potential to be quite destructive. They take the malady of leprosy and connect it to Miriam’s punishment for speaking against her brother to teach us about the harm that defaming another can do.

We are left with an important question: why is “lashon hora” considered one of the worst possible transgressions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l commented “that Judaism is less a religion of holy people and places than it is about holy words.” Words bring the world into being when we look at Genesis.

My tallit has the following words on the atara (the neckpiece):
דנָי שפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ
Open my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise.

These are words that begin the Amidah, one of our oldest prayers, the standing prayer, a prayer that provides us with an opportunity to commune with the Divine, in whatever way we may understand that possibility. Before having a difficult conversation with someone, it is always best to begin with a positive opening and that is what is being modelled for us here. The Amidah ends with the following words, words that have always struck me as a guardrail as I go forward in my day after reciting them: “My God, guard my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. May I not respond to those who curse me. And in my dealings with them may my soul be humble.”

The Amidah, known as Ha’Tefillah, the Prayer, speaks to the centrality of our use of language. Its power knows no time when it wasn’t germane. Words have incredible power. The children’s chant “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” is simply not true.

Bullying, malicious gossip, and lies have incredible power and our task is to speak truth to power, to unmask lies and to stop bullies whenever they cross our path.

If we take a moment to think of those moments of oratory by leaders we have heard, the words of those couched in negativity and invective leave a trail of smoke behind, the words lost in all of their evil power. But we do remember the words of those who speak with vision, hope, and love. I invite you to remember such words, whether you heard them in person or via a screen and think of why you were inspired.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sun, December 10 2023 27 Kislev 5784