Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tazria-Metzora: Words Have Power

This week it’s the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. 

What do you think of when you hear the word “Yente”? It’s come to mean someone who gossips, or a busybody. Well, this week’s portion talks about contagious diseases that affect people and their homes. The Torah specifically mentions Tsara’at, which is translated as “Leprosy”. But, maybe Tsara’at isn’t just about a physical disease. Maybe its about spiritual affliction, like Lashon Hara. Lashon Hara is all about gossiping. Its like Moral Leprosy. You see, Judaism considers slander and gossip to be major sins. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that when we slander someone, we literally slay him, for when we deprive him of his good name, it is as if we deprive him of his life. Damaging a person's reputation through gossip is like taking his life. The Talmud teaches: "A person's tongue is more powerful than his sword. A sword can only kill someone who is nearby; a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away" (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 15b).

            Once there was a woman who talked so much about her neighbors that they all went to the Rabbi to complain.  “She tells everyone that I eat cake instead of bread!” complained one woman who pudgy face was pink with distress. “I only said I’d like to, I didn’t say I did. But she goes around telling everybody I do!”
            “She says I’m too stingy to take a deep breath,” said another.
            “Everytime she sees me she tells me how nice I look. But to everyone else she says I look terrible for my age!”
            And another complained—“She’s always telling people what a good cook I am. She tells everybody that I am so good that I can make poor butter taste like manna!”
            “Is that bad?” said the Rabbi.  It seemed to him like a very good thing to be able to do.
            “But she makes everybody think that I buy only the poorest quality ingredients for my fine baking. And it is not true. I buy only the best!”
            “I see,” said the Rabbi. “Yes, I see.”
            And after he had heard all the complaints he sent for the woman to come to see him.
            “Why do you make up stories about your neighbors?” he asked her.
            She laughed, a pleased little laugh. “I don’t really make up stories, “ she said. “I just tell them a little bigger than they really are.”
            “You see nothing wrong in that?” the Rabbi asked.
            She shrugged. “Most of the time it’s just the plain truth—dressed up a little.”
            “And the other times?”
            The woman laughed at the question.
            “Well, the other times, its almost the truth”, she admitted.
            “Anyway, she explained, its only talk”
            “Perhaps you are right”, the Rabbi said.
            After all, Rabbi,” she said, “What’s talk! It isn’t as if I can’t take back what I say.”
            The Rabbi only nodded. He folded his arms and talked of other things.
            As the woman was about to leave, he asked, “I wonder if you would do something for me?”
            “Of course,” she said. “I’m really not a mean person, Rabbi. I’ll be glad to do anything for you.”
            He went over to the couch and picked up a plump feather pillow and gave it to her. He said, “Take this pillow to the town square.”
            “When you get to the town square, I want you to cut it open, and shake out the feathers,” the Rabbi told her.
            “Cut it open!” she said.
            The Rabbi nodded. And afterwards, return here.
            She did exactly as the Rabbi instructed her to do. She cut the pillow open and let the feathers fly. The light breeze in the town square floated the feathers up and away.
            When she returned to the Rabbi’s house she told him that she did what he had asked.
            “Fine!” said the Rabbi. “Now, go pick them all up”
            “But that is impossible!” said the woman
            “Ah” said the Rabbi “So it is impossible for you to take back all the unkind things you have said about others.

Words are like feathers.  Unkind words are easily dropped, but once they leave the mouth, they can never be retrieved.
“O Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile.  And to those who slander me, let me give no heed. May my soul be humble and forgiving unto all.”


  1. Wonderful blog topic Rabbi Babs!
    In my experience though, words in and of themselves don't have any power. It is only our beliefs about them that grant them power. If, for example, you would tell me that you think I'm a jerk, I wouldn't consider that to be a problem. It would only become a problem if I believed that you shouldn't be thinking that or telling me about it. Or if I believed that being called a jerk could somehow diminish who I am.

  2. Interesting then...it's the power of the word