A new rabbi comes to a well-established congregation. Every week on Shabbat, a fight erupts during the service. When it comes time to recite the Shema — “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One” — half the congregation stands and the other half sits.
The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting: “Stand up!” The people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing: “Sit down!” Back and forth — “Stand up!” “Sit down!” — until it destroys the decorum of the service and drives the rabbi crazy.
Each and every week this happens until it is brought to the rabbi’s attention that a founding member of the congregation, a 98-year-old man, still lives near the temple.
So the rabbi brings two other members from the congregation — one who represents those who sit and one who represents those who stand — to visit the old man and find out which tradition is the correct one. “Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to stand for the Shema?” “No,” the old man answers in a weak voice. “That wasn’t the tradition.”
“Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to sit for the Shema?” “No,” the old man says. “That wasn’t the tradition.”
At this point, the rabbi cannot control himself. He cuts in angrily. “I don’t care what the tradition was! Just tell them one or the other. Do you know what goes on in services every week? The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing.”
“That,” the old man said, “that was the tradition.”
Jewish tradition encourages questioning and even the occasional argument; nothing is taken for granted. And disagreement abounds. There may be some truth to that old saying — “two Jews, three opinions” — after all. But even as we chuckle at the story, it makes an important point. We don’t have to agree, but what we often fail to remember is that how we choose to disagree is what matters.
Disagreeing in a kind and respectful way has no penalty. But disagreeing in a demeaning and slanderous way does. And what is the price for this behavior? In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, we find a rabbinic answer. The subject of both portions is leprosy, tzara’at. God tells Moses and Aaron how to identify and respond to those infected with the skin disease, as well as the particulars of the purification ritual.
How does a portion about leprosy become a lesson about disagreeing with civility? The word metzora is the key. It can be understood in two ways, both as the person afflicted with tzara’at and as an acronym for motzi shem ra, literally translated as “the one who brings forth a bad name,” but often interpreted as “one who gossips or uses evil language.”
Tzara’at, then, is the biblical punishment for language that is unkind — for slanderous or demeaning speech: for incivility.
For the commentators it was easy to make the connection between physical affliction and problematic behavior. The Bible itself provided Miriam and Moses as examples of how our choice of words can cause physical ailments.
So we can see why the commentators viewed leprosy as the direct result of unkind and
malicious speech. But they took the cause-and-effect relationship even further by theorizing that since behavior caused physical sickness, it could also take it away. For them, leprosy could ultimately be cured by changing one’s behavior, especially by altering the behaviors that brought on the leprosy in the first place.
While we don’t necessarily believe that our words and behavior will cause us to break out in painful boils and lesions, we can nonetheless understand that unkind speech can indeed cause others pain, albeit of an emotional nature. We know that by changing our behavior, by watching what words we use and don’t use, as well as paying attention to how we say them, we can often take that pain away.
In our liturgy, during the silent prayer, we encounter the prayer Elohai Nitzor, which states: “O God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.” May it be a reminder to use our words carefully, in a way that is respectful, kind and considerate of others. PJC
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is a rabbi and director of education of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.