This week’s Torah portion is called Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33), frequently translated as “leper.” As the title indicates, there is much discussion on leprosy in the bible.

Leprosy in the bible, which is discussed specifically in this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, should not be confused with medical leprosy. The leprosy in the bible was a spiritual disease that caused white blemishes to appear on the skin of the afflicted. It was not permanent, and certainly not deadly.

The Talmud teaches that tzaraat (the white blemishes on the skin of the metzora) was a punishment for evil speech, such as slander or gossip – a severe prohibition known in Hebrew as lashon hara. In fact, the word metzora can be read as motzi ra – “one who emits evil [through evil speech].” Indeed, we need not go to the Talmud to learn this; it can be seen in the Torah itself. Moses’ sister Miriam was stricken with tzaraat after speaking negatively about Moses.

The play on words in metzora can be read in another manner as well: Motzi ra, meaning that a metzora is a person who “seeks evil [about other people].” If we would avoid seeing and seeking bad in others, we would not come to commit the transgression of evil speech, and by extension, people would never have been afflicted with tzaraat back then.

Leprosy in the Bible Illustrates Gravity of Transgression

This summary is just a drop in the bucket to help illustrate the gravity of speaking negatively about others. It is not merely harmful to the person being maligned, but – at least in biblical times – one would end up suffering with tzaraat.

I can assure you that even though we don’t get tzaraat today, God nevertheless is not pleased when we speak lashon hara.

What is the manner of repentance for speaking lashon hara?

To use our mouth and speech for good things, of course! Prayer and Torah-based discussions are certainly good places to start! Speak about the good in others and about positive things that you see others doing.

Our sages teach that the power of intelligent speech was granted only to people. This is the foremost attribute that distinguishes humans from animals. Speech is a way to communicate our thoughts and convey our intelligence. We must realize that this is a Godly gift, and we must use it properly. We should be utterly embarrassed to even think that we can use this gift to speak ill of others.

This is the message of the tale of leprosy in the bible: Lashon hara is evil! Use your mouth for good things only! Otherwise, even an animal is holier than you!

Author: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Advisor, United with Israel
Date: Apr. 3, 2014