When writing a novel, one would surely be careful to arrange the storyline in a logical and orderly fashion, placing smooth transitions between different topics. Likewise, one would certainly expect the Torah, serving as the very lifeblood of the Jewish people, and bearing much more significance than a mere novel, to follow similar guidelines. However, the introductory section of this week's Torah portion seems to diverge from this demanded consistency.
When writing a novel, one would surely be careful to arrange the storyline in a logical and orderly fashion, placing smooth transitions between different topics. Likewise, one would certainly expect the Torah, serving as the very lifeblood of the Jewish people, and bearing much more significance than a mere novel, to follow similar guidelines. However, the introductory section of this week's Torah portion seems to diverge from this demanded consistency. The Torah portion commences with a discussion of the laws concerning the status of a woman who has recently given birth, and the various procedures which must take place with regard to her and the child. The Torah immediately proceeds with a detailed description of the different types of spots and discolorations which may render an individual a metzorah (a person inflicted with tzaraat, which is commonly translated as leprosy. However, it must be stated that while leprosy is a purely physical disease that may be contracted by others through physical contact, tzaraat is essentially a spiritual ailment that is not at all contagious). These two laws of a woman who has just given birth and someone with tzaraat would appear to be totally unconnected; why then are they placed in such close proximity?
In order to answer this question, it would seem logical that we must first examine the details of these two laws. In Leviticus 12:7 we find that a woman who has just given birth must bring a karban (offering): "[The kohen (priest)] shall offer it before Hashem and atone for her, and she becomes purified from the source of her blood; this is the law of one who gives birth to a male or to a female." This law raises an obvious question: What sin has this woman committed that requires atonement? What evil has this woman perpetrated that demands of her an offering? The rabbis of the Talmud provide an answer to this problem. While under the stress and intense pain of childbirth, this woman very likely may have sworn never to return to her husband -- the cause and source of her present suffering. Therefore, when the woman fully recovers, returning to her husband and neglecting her previous oath, she has in fact broken her vow. While the Torah recognizes that this oath was taken under great anguish and distress, nonetheless this woman cannot be totally absolved without any sort of penitence, for after all, she has taken a vow. Her words cannot be simply disregarded with a wave of the hand. Therefore, the Torah affords this woman the opportunity to obtain complete atonement by bringing an offering.
If we now shift our attention to the second section in question, that of the illness of tzaraat, we discover that the Torah initiates its discussion of such a person inflicted with this disease without any sort of introduction; the reader is immediately propelled into a comprehensive discussion of the various forms and developments of tzaraat. The Torah in no place makes mention of the cause of tzaraat, thus leaving one to wonder what sin could possibly prompt this disease to descend on one's body and/or property. Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, offers an answer, stating that the primary cause of tzaraat is the grievous crime of lashon harah (evil speech or slander). In order to appreciate the gravity of his actions, the speaker of lashon harah is afflicted with tzaraat. Not only must the affected person deal with lesions covering his body, he is also forced to separate from the general community and undergo a lengthy healing process marked by repeated visits by the kohen (priest) to determine the status and development of the disease. It is hoped that all this misery and torment will help him recognize his misconduct and lead to repentance.
At this point, we can readily understand the juxtaposition of these two seemingly disconnected subjects. The Torah here wishes to teach us the power of speech. While Western society espouses beliefs such as "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me," Judaism attributes much more importance and significance to the spoken word. Every word uttered must be carefully measured. Even an oath taken while under the influence of the pangs of childbirth must be accounted for. Even a seemingly harmless comment about a fellow Jew must be dealt with. Words do mean something. We cannot allow our mouths to run free without any concern for what may result. Just as the Torah was given to us on Mount Sinai, not by a scroll that fell from the sky, but through the holy word of Hashem, so too must we purify and sanctify our own speech.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is currently enrolled in a joint program with the University of Maryland and Ner Israel Rabbinical College, both in Baltimore.
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