Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...ha-oseh s'yag lid'varav, choosing carefully one's words....
(Leviticus 13:46) Kol y'mei asher hanega bo yitma, tamei hu, badad yeisheiv, michutz lamachaneh moshavo; All the days that the disease is upon him he shall be impure, [and since] he is impure, he shall live apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
There are probably not two more uncomfortable teachings for us than those represented by this value and this verse. The Torah portion is about skin conditions often mistranslated as leprosy, and how they are treated. The afflicted individual is quarantined and shaved, kept isolated in residence and appearance until all signs of the disease are removed. (Someone so suffering must also shout out, "Impure! Impure!" should anyone approach to avoid contact.)
With the long-time emphasis in our tradition on care for the sick and the contemporary understanding of how important human contact is to recovery, this ritual purity code seems contrary to everything we have been taught. And when you add how this section has been exploited by some religious leaders to suggest discrimination against people with frightening illnesses, it is easy to dismiss the section as anachronistic and blatantly harmful.
Perhaps there is some comfort for modern readers of the Torah to know that this section troubled our predecessors as well. Even though they believed (as I hope we do not) that suffering was mostly deserved, even if the reason was difficult to discern, they struggled to identify behaviors so troubling that they would, in effect, excommunicate the sufferer. If we can look beyond the particulars of the worldview, the lesson is more than relevant to us.
The person who suffers from this skin condition is named for the disease – m'tzora. Our Sages considered this name to be an acronym for motzi shem ra, meaning, literally, "one who brings forth a bad name," or, more colloquially, a gossip. The sin they identified as being the source of so-called leprosy is one of the most common behaviors of human beings in social circumstances – talking about other people behind their backs.
Most of us consider ourselves highly discriminating in the way we "share essential information." We excuse it because we only gossip with trusted friends, or we only repeat things we are (almost) certain are true, or we consider it our responsibility to keep people fully informed. And all of us solemnly condemn gossip in principle. But it's hard to deny that tabloids, gossip columns and other personality-based media remain the most-accessed form of communication in our society.
There is a wealth of material about the ravages of gossip in our tradition. It is blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple. Resisting it formed the basis of the life and Torah of Israel Meir Kagan, a twentieth-century rabbi who became known as the Hafetz Hayyim. He was so named after the verse in Psalm 34: Who is the one who desires life (hafetz hayyim) "...Stop your tongue from gossiping." But the teaching has its origins in the life of Miriam who (in Numbers 12) is described as gossiping about the wife of her brother Moses, and thus becoming a m'tzora'at. To the dismay of the people, she was put out of the camp until she healed.
The vehicle for acquiring Torah this week is ha-oseh s'yag lid'varav, and it is the other uncomfortable subject I mentioned above. We all squirm when our inappropriate conversation is pointed out to us. We get defensive and angry, especially after making our excuses and being met with an expression of disbelief. Even if we consider ourselves consumers rather than purveyors of gossip, the very mention of the ethics of speech raises our internal sense of guilt.
The advice from Avot is not just about choosing your words carefully. Carefully chosen words can often be more devastating in inference than a blurted truth. The value translates literally as "making a fence" around your words. Sometimes fences keep things in, and sometimes fences keep things out, but fences always separate one domain from another. Gossip grabs our attention and closes off the opportunity to hear words of Torah because our focus is elsewhere. When it occupies the same domain as Torah, it might as well be a blight that obscures the letters on the parchment, or a shout of "Impure! Impure!" that drowns out a spoken lesson. Only by quarantining those words outside the camp – effectively excommunicating gossip – can we be assured of acquiring Torah.
And while Jewish law and lore emphasize that the listener can be as responsible as the speaker, Avot puts the major responsibility squarely where it belongs: on the gossip himself or herself. Words emerge from our mouths with purpose and on purpose; they are the creations of our intentions, the building blocks of the kind of world we seek to create. Making a fence around your words before they escape will eventually create a fence that will keep gossip not just far from your mouth, but also far from your heart.
How can you be ha-oseh s'yag lid'varav? Do you remember when your mother used to say, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?" She was right. It may help to actually visualize a fence with a gate; only let those words through the gate that belong in the wider world.
*Please note: These two Torah portions are often combined in the annual cycle of reading. During this leap year, they are read separately. As a result, there will be no column next week. The next column will appear on or about April 23.