Shabbat Shalom! Before talking Torah, it is also time to count the Omer.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקינו מלך/רוח העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציונו על ספירת העומר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech/ruach ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.
Blessed are you, adonai, our G-od, ruler/spirit of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer.
היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים בעומר.
Hayom shmonah asar yom, she’heim shnei shavuot v’arbah yamim b’omer.
Today is eighteen days, that is two weeks and four days of the omer.
The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Netzach she’b’Tiferet, that is Endurance in balance. On this day in this journey from redemption to revelation, may speak truth to power and stand for equality even when it is difficult and it may seem easier to let imbalances slide.
This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tazria-Metzora, in which the Torah deals with the rules of ritual purity and impurity, including the impurity of skin blemishes. Tza’arat, often translated as “leprosy,” is described in detail, telling us of the various signs and symptoms the priests would look for to determine when a Metzora (someone with tza’arat) would be clean enough again to re-enter the Israelite camp (after a repurification ritual, of course). It’s all pretty gross.
While the Torah presents this information like an early WebMD entry, simply the symptoms and home remedies of a physical illness, the rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah felt these blemishes were surely punishments for sin. Why else would our Holy Torah share such repellent details unless to repel us from wrongdoing? So they connect these descriptions and explanations about tza’arat to another portion (Parashat Beha’alot’cha) in which Miriam comes down with a case of it after speaking ill of Moses’s wife. So, they conclude, tza’arat is the punishment for lashon hara, or “Evil Speech” (most often understood as gossip).
You’re all probably at least somewhat familiar with the sin of lashon hara. There’s that famous legend about the person who spread a rumor and felt guilty afterward, so they asked their rabbi what they should do to make it up to the person who was the subject of the rumor. The rabbi tells the person to go buy some feather pillows and stand on the hill above the village and cut open the pillows, letting the feathers fly. The gossiper does so and goes back to the rabbi the next day and asks what happens next, how this helps make teshuvah to the person they’ve hurt. The rabbi tells the gossiper to go collect the feathers and refill the pillow sacks. Of course, this is impossible and the gossiper learns that much like the released feathers can never be gathered back up, so too words can never really be taken back and only true teshuva directly to the person hurt in the act of gossip can make amends.
I often teach this lesson to students by playing a game of telephone to illustrate that not only can we not take back our words once they leave our mouths, but we also lose control of how they’re used. The words in a game of telephone morph and change, lose their meaning and get silly, sometimes inappropriate, and often the word or phrase that the group ends up with is not quite what the initial speaker said. As rumors make their way around a school, the story that eventually sticks may not be what the initial gossiper meant to go around. That does not at all excuse the initial gossiper for starting the rumor. The tza’arat affects those who spread falsehoods about others regardless of intention, and the Talmud says that lashon hara kills three people: those who speak it, those who hear it spoken, and those of whom it is spoken.
This week was Yom HaShoa, the Jewish Remembrance Day for the 6 million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust, and of course we mourn the countless others as well. Rroma, LGBT populations, political prisoners, Catholic clergy, twins, and people with disabilities were all also victims and survivors of this horrible time in history. But the concentration camps didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. I know less about the anti-Rroma or homophobic or ableist history in Europe, but I know that the Holocaust was a culmination of centuries of antisemitism. Whether or not the medieval Christians who started the Blood Libel and claimed they just wanted to save our souls with forced conversions could have ever imagined the extremes their rhetoric would eventually come to means nothing. Christians today who continue to believe in Zionist world domination conspiracy theories, who claim to want to save our souls with coerced conversions or the uncomfortable manipulative rhetoric of “Messianic Jews” are reiterated this centuries-old antisemitism and triggering the trauma of the Holocaust. Words have meaning. Did you know that the “Final Solution” wasn’t even Hitler’s idea? He said he wanted the Jews out of Germany, and his henchmen decided gassing them and burning the bodies was the fastest way to move along toward the goal of a Juden-rein Germany. Hitler wasn’t even at the meeting. Does that make him any less responsible for the circumstances he created? Of course not. Are those who unknowingly perpetuate his rhetoric without intending to finish his goals any less responsible for the hurt they cause? Of course not.
Words turn to actions, which is why part of the purification ritual for tza’arat was temporary exile from the Israelite camp. While one is afflicted with lashon hara, they need a time out. A chance to appreciate their diverse community, and not have any opportunity to spread further malice or allow words turn to evil actions. In the camp, unchecked gossip could lead to the complete ruin of the tightknit community stuck together wandering the wilderness. In Medieval Europe, unchecked anti-Jewish theologies and conspiracies gave way to anti-Jewish pogroms and church/state-sponsored violence. As time progressed the words of Modern Europe became more sophisticated antisemitic scapegoating, which gave way to larger scale antisemitic genocide.
This is why when we see lashon hara in any form, we should call it out and put a stop to it immediately. Whether mere gossip, or hate speech and fear-mongering, words hurt. They can become actions, and rumors turn to bullying, scapegoating and conspiracies lead to mass violence. We endeavor to speak truth to power and restore balance in our communities through positive speech. As we remember those lost in the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as those lost to other state-sponsored genocides or other instances of violent prejudice, we resolve to stand by the decree: Never Again. We honor their memory by saving others from their fate, by nipping dangerous lashon hara in the bud. And may we protect ourselves, our friends and families, our neighbors and communities, from tza’arat and all the harm that lashon hara will bring down upon those who speak it, hear it, or find themselves the subject of it.