Sermon, Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
You may have heard the latest factoid to emerge this past week. Motto for 2019: Avoid Negative People. Motto for 2020: Avoid All People.
This week we read the Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora, and you probably know by now that it’s not a very tasty Torah portion, dealing with leprosy and other dread diseases, pandemics, of the ancient world. It is little consolation that they employed essentially the same ways of dealing with incurable ailments in Biblical times, some 3000 years ago, as we do today: quarantine, social distancing, and physical separation. When Tazria-Metzora goes into great detail in describing the skin afflictions, eruptions and other conditions associated with the illnesses they were combating, it can be quite excruciating to listen to.
There is a tradition, however, of reading the word for leprosy, Metzora, as a kind of abbreviation in Hebrew for motzi shem ra, the use of evil speech or slander. It is an important revision. For in Metzorah there is a concept called metzora’at bayit, leprosy of the house. I think I know why it’s here, and why we read this peculiar Torah portion every year, even when we are not experiencing a pandemic. It has much to teach us about human conduct.
Last summer I taught a class based on the Chofets Chayim's book Guard Your Tongue. It was a successful class, I think. Of course, some people attended that course in the mistaken belief that it was not a class but simply a chance to exchange lashon hara, gossip; and others thought it would be a workshop in how to exchange lashon hara. But I believe that, in spite of this, my class in lashon hara had a great and profound impact. You see, for at least a month after that class people who took it would begin confidential conversations with the powerful phrase "I know this is lashon hara, but..."
Obviously, rabbinic success comes in many forms. There is a famous story about the Chofets Chayim, the rabbi who wrote the most important text on lashon hara. One shabbes a rabbi from a small Polish shtetl came to pay a call on the great Chofets Chayim, with a problem he was experiencing in his shtella, his congregation. The small-town rabbi was complaining that although he gave a one-hour sermon almost every Shabbat he noticed no discernible improvement in the behavior of his congregants. They still committed the same sins, made the same mistakes, were engaged in the same petty complaints and problems. He was completely ineffective.
"Tell me," asked the Chofets Chayim, "do you get much of congregation on shabbes, an oilem?"
"I don't like to brag," said the small-town shtetl rabbi, "but they say I am a good speaker. If the weather isn't too bad, I get as many as 200 people, and every single week it grows larger! "
"Ah," said the Chofets Chayim. "I see. Very good. And do they pay attention?"
"Oh yes, I think so," said the rabbi. "At least, it's very quiet when I speak. Even the children fall silent, or at least the ones who are awake."
"Ah," said the Chofets Chayim. "I see. Very good. You do quite well. Mazal tov!"
The visiting rabbi was far from being satisfied with this answer. "But what does it matter how many people are there, or if they sit at attention? What I tell them falls on deaf ears! What am I accomplishing with all my preaching?"
"Ah," said the Chofets Chayim, admiringly, "It's like this. You have achieved something wonderful, and surely the Lord will reward you handsomely for it. Because of your sermons, you are helping your congregants, your baalei bosim, to live long and good lives. Just think of it! You have kept 200 Jews from speaking lashon hara for a whole hour."
The Chofets Chayim was actually rather obsessed with lashon hara, and until fairly recently I never understood why. Frankly speaking, I grew up in a home in which, generally, no one really did Lashon HaRah at all. We talked all the time, but it was almost never about other people. It just wasn’t part of our way of interacting. In fact, until I got to high school, I had no idea how to gossip. I had to learn how to do it from my theater arts’ friends… It had never occurred to me that talking about other people could be interesting.
So I always thought, what's the big deal about a little harmless gossip? I remember hearing a rabbi's sermon on lashon hara one Yom Kippur and thinking, who cares? How many people really do this? And who does it really hurt? What does it really hurt? Just because George and I are talking about Fred, and mutually speculating about some part of his life, how is he really injured? Oh, and how many people really engage in lashon hara?
Actually, you can help me on this one. Let's just see something. Would you all please raise your hands in response to my questions: how many people here have gossiped over the past 24 hours? How about the last week? The last month? The last year? Be honest, please. Don't be shy. I can’t see you anyway if you are watching on Facebook, or if you are on Zoom but don’t have your video signal on.
Does answering this question make you a little uncomfortable? To be honest, I'm a little uncomfortable on this one too. Last Yom Kippur we all repeated the phrase "Al Cheit, Forgive us God, for the sin we have committed by engaging in lashon hara." And tonight, less than eight months later, we can, almost all of us, freely admit again to having gossiped, engaged in lashon hara. By golly, everyone does this stuff. Why?
You see, lashon hara, gossiping, is fun. It's fun to talk about other people, to speculate about their lives, their problems, how they are doing, what they are doing. It takes our minds off our own lives for a few moments, our own problems and concerns. Sharing supposed secrets gives us a false impression of intimacy with the people around us. If I tell you that someone we both know is cheating on his wife, or that a certain mutual acquaintance has been known to shoplift, or that a seemingly nice couple's children are out of control, or hospitalized—well that makes us seem like closer friends, doesn't it? And besides, we are sharing a harmless confidence; who's going to find out about it? No one will really know who circulates Lashon haRa, who is not confidential…
I think that's what we think when we do lashon hara here in Tucson, and even within the Jewish community. We figure no one will know if we engage in a little harmless gossiping with friends, over a golf game or a beer, at a ballgame or a lunch or out to dinner or even an oneg Shabbat. We don't think anyone will really know that it was us that started that rumor about Sally's eating disorder, or Jim's new hairpiece, about Bill's financial problems or Karen's divorce. When we drop those red-hot gossip items, those hot tamales of lashon hara, we like to pretend that we live in a big, anonymous city where no one knows who we are.
My friends, I am here to tell you that when we gossip and assume no one knows we are doing it, we are living a lie. Although Tucson has grown a lot, it's still not a very big city, and our Jewish community is a small subset of that small city. I promise that if you spread rumors, drop innuendoes, or pass along gossip you are not doing so unnoticed. It is not a question of Big Brother watching you; this is simply a question of everyone having a pretty good idea of what everyone else is doing. Of course, there is also the fact that God knows what you are doing, and that you know it too. I assure you that anyone who trades in lashon hara around here becomes famous pretty quickly. Pass along a rumor, and everyone will know from whence it came.
Now, let's talk a little bit about that question, who is going to get hurt by a little harmless gossip. Who really gets hurt? Who indeed. Let me put it as straight as I can. Everyone is hurt by gossip. Everyone. I don't just mean that you personally are a little peeved when you hear someone you know is circulating rumors about you. I mean that you are hurt, the one who started the rumor is hurt, everyone who passed it on is a little hurt, and our congregation and our Jewish community are damaged. I have had people in my office in tears over rumors they have heard about themselves. I have seen lives scarred by the deliberate circulation of lashon hara. I have heard the most outlandish things bandied about, damaging things, hurtful things. It's fascinating; some of those rumors have been about me, and it has been entertaining in a mordant way to quietly trace them to their sources. I have seen and heard lashon hara done intentionally, maliciously; I have seen it done spitefully; I have seen it done quietly, subtly. I have seen it done casually, even accidentally. Believe me when I tell you that it hurts every single time it occurs.
A Mishna in Tractate Arachin tells us that it was solely because of Lashon Hara that our ancestors were forced to die in the Sinai Desert, and not permitted to enter the Promised Land. That's quite a claim, but I will tell you why even this outlandish statement is true. The circulating of personal rumors is one of the surest ways to destroy a community. The bonds that tie us together are damaged and can even be broken by the foolish, unnecessary, destructive practice of lashon hara. It is, of course, worse still when it is done intentionally, deliberately and very publicly, whether by word of mouth, by texting, on Facebook, on Instagram or by email. Put very simply, it is Lashon Hara that quite literally forms one of the most serious threats to our own remarkable Jewish community here in Tucson.
My friends, we have an extraordinarily active, caring congregation. We have many things to be grateful for, so many wonderful things to talk about, to share. Let us talk about those things; let us talk about Jewish learning, about Torah, about ideas, about Israel, our national policies on health care or guns, about the changes in our city, about our own lives, about politics, about Coronavirus, even. But let us stop talking about each other's faults and flaws and misdeeds.
There is a statement in Talmud about Lashon Hara, about unethical speech, that drives to the heart of the matter. It says that gossip kills three people: the person who speaks it; the person who hears it; and the person about whom it is spoken. It is death through betrayal of the bonds of human community.
On this Shabbat of Tazria-Metzorah, I ask you--in the name of the Chofets Chayim, in the name of God, in the name of our community and our temple and our people--to join me in a little pledge. I ask you to promise that you will not actively engage in lashon hara. That you will turn aside from opportunities to gossip. That you will choose to follow the words of King David's Psalm, [34:13-14], "Who is the one who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech."
If you can do this—if we can all do this—then next spring when we come to this Torah portion of Metzora, of the destructive qualities of slanderous speech, of gossip and Lashon haRa, we will have removed Tz’ora’at from our own home. And if we can do that, I promise that this will bring our congregation, our community, and our own lives, blessing.
Kein yehi ratson; so may this be God's will for us; so may this be our will. Amein.