(Courtesy: NYL Shabbat Message – by Matt Abrams Gerber)

Parshat Tazria-Metzora – April 24th,2009

Why do Jews keep kosher? There has been much discussion in our tradition as to the reasons for the laws of kashrut. Do they have to do with hygiene and health? Are they to keep Jews separate and distinct in order to preserve Jewish identity? Or is there no rationale behind them other than their being one of Judaism’s ways of helping us demonstrate our allegiance to G-d?

In David R. Blumenthal’s God at the Center, he relates 18th century Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s teachings, including his perspective on kashrut. Levi Yitzhak rejects the explanations suggested above. Instead, Blumenthal presents the rabbi’s approach in this way: “Keeping kosher is a way of preparing oneself to receive the word of God. It is a way of cultivating the bodily habits that will make one a fit receptacle for the divine Presence. What one eats, counts. What one says, counts.” Blumenthal continues by noting that when we communicate with G-d, we must be “whole,” not just with our hearts and minds, but our bodies.

The connection between what we eat and what we say is emphasized by the juxtaposition of last week’s parashahShemini, in which we learned the laws of kashrut, and this week’s double parashahTazria-Metzora. In this week’s reading, we learn about a condition called tzara’at, which is translated as leprosy (although its symptoms are different from what we know as leprosy today) and is generally understood as resulting from lashon hara, harmful speech or gossip. Tzara’at was primarily a skin disease, although it could also infect clothing and buildings. Only a member of the priesthood could determine the extent of the condition and whether the person afflicted should be deemed “pure” or “impure.”

At first, it is strange to think that a priest had to inspect the disease, since his role was to attend to the sanctuary and all ritual activity. But this is precisely why he was the one involved in “diagnosing” tzara’at. The Israelite community saw such a condition as a curse or punishment from G-d and did not want it to spread. As the highest spiritual authority in the community, and the one acting most closely with G-d, the priest was the logical person to help facilitate healing for the afflicted person and the community at large.

As a result of committing lashon hara, one would be afflicted with tzara’at and, thus, need to be quarantined for a minimum of seven days. In essence, the punishment for gossiping was to be separated from the community. As a result of this separation, the person would hopefully reflect on and understand the inappropriate approach s/he took, want to return to the community and atone for the sin.

Frequently, discomfort or disconnection leads people to engage in gossip. However, rather than creating more comfort, gossip only serves to disrupt the fabric of the community and hurt those involved. It can act as an infectious disease that spreads quickly unless interrupted.

In biblical times, tzara’at was quite prevalent, and lashon hara was taken extremely seriously. At the same time, it was understood that the person was welcome back into the community after their quarantine. We see in the book of Numbers that when Miriam contracts tzara’at as punishment for slandering Moses and Aaron, the community waits for her to return from her quarantine before continuing on their journey.

There are few of us who are able to refrain from lashon hara. It can often make us feel better, and we can usually find plenty of good excuses for why we need to do it. As leaders, we are frequently the subject of people’s gossip because we must make difficult decisions with which others may not agree. Rather than go to the leader directly to air their concerns, people tend to find it easier to share their frustration with someone who will collude with them. This approach only undermines the fabric of our already small Jewish community.

Lashon hara is tempting. However, as leaders, we are charged with building our communities up rather than contributing to their fracture. In considering how we do that, we can look to Levi Yitzhak’s charge of making ourselves “fit receptacles” for G-d. In seeing each of us as created in the image of G-d, we can extend his teaching to mean that our goal is to be as “whole” as we can, in mind, heart and body, for all of our interactions. That is no small task. But Judaism always prefers that we go “whole hog.”