This week’s Torah portion is among the least favorites of most modern day Jews. I’ve heard of B’nai Mitzvah being rescheduled to avoid it, others who have had to use this portion for their b’nai mitzvah bemoaning the misfortune of their birth dates, and students excited to have an excuse to miss services today, so as not to hear it. It’s an icky portion. With talk of body fluids, ancient discomfort with natural body functions, and strange gross sounding skin diseases, parts of this parsha are, as G-dcast declared, downright PG-13 (for those who don’t know g-dcast.com is a great way for all ages to study Torah, with cartoon depictions of each parasha), and many in this room today are not yet 13. This makes it a difficult portion to talk about and really stay true to the text.
Even the ancient rabbis felt this difficulty, and rather than talk at length about bodies and disease, much commentary on this Torah portion is about gossip. Later in the Torah, in the book of Numbers, Miriam is struck with the spots on her skin that are described at length in this week’s portion after bad-mouthing Moses’s wife. From this, the rabbis of ancient times decided that this disease must always be a punishment for gossip. Jewish tradition has a slew of sayings and stories condemning gossip, even calling it Lashon HaRa, the evil tongue or speech. But we all do it. Even if we try really hard to be conscious of what we say all the time, it is fairly impossible to never speak about other people sometimes. Judaism teaches that even talking about people in a positive way when they are not around is Lashon HaRa, because if you were to speak too highly of someone, others’ expectations of them might grow to a point where the real person could never actually live up to that, and still cause their embarrassment. And of course, it should go without saying to never speak ill of others, particularly if they are not around to defend themselves. Gossip hurts three people: the one who speaks the gossip, the one who hears the gossip, and the one who is being gossiped about. Although, obviously, we are not today struck with icky skin spots every time we gossip, it is still bad for the soul, and can cause damage to our friendships. Those we subject to listening to our gossip become complicit in the act, and thus we are damaging their relationships as well. And of course, when we spread information, whether truth or rumors, about others, we are potentially damaging their reputations, embarrassing them, or setting them up for future embarrassment, and none of that is any good for anyone.
In this week’s Torah portion, the purification process to get rid of the disease and repent for the supposed gossip is to leave the Israelite camp and spend some time alone. Alone, it is not possible to gossip. Alone, one can considered the damage done, feel guilty, repent to G-d, and find the right words to apologize to the others affect by his or her gossip once he or she returns to the community. However, there’s no promise that others will forgive the gossiper, and there is really no way to undo the gossip. One old Jewish story goes that a man spread a rumor about his neighbor and wanted to repent. So his rabbi told him to get a feather pillow at the store, and cut it, dropping feathers out of the pillow the whole way home. The next day, the man goes back to the rabbi to ask what happens now that he’s done the pillow thing and the rabbi tells him, go back and collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. Of course, the man cannot do this, because feathers blow in the wind and it would be impossible to collect them all and make the pillow at all usable again. So, the rabbi explains, this is what happens when you gossip. The words leave you and you can never retrieve them. Hopefully, you can be forgiven by those you may have hurt in your gossip, but you can never really take back the things you say. May we all find the wisdom to know when to be quiet, and may we never hurt others with our words.