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Israel-Gaza War 5784: Metzorah – We Could All Use a Good Soaking

Metzorah describes the purification procedures for people, clothing, and houses with an affliction called tzara’at. While tzara’at has sometimes been translated as leprosy, this affliction was something else. It appeared on the skin of a person or the surface of a garment or wall. The person or object was quarantined until the condition cleared.

Metzorah describes the purification procedures for people, clothing, and houses with an affliction called tzara’at. While tzara’at has sometimes been translated as leprosy, this affliction was something else. It appeared on the skin of a person or the surface of a garment or wall. The person or object was quarantined until the condition cleared.

How can a wall or garment have an affliction? How can this affliction render someone—or something—impure? And why this particular skin condition, but not others? As a teenager, I would happily have undergone a week in quarantine if it would have rid me of acne.

But this Torah portion isn’t about dermatology. It’s about the harm caused by gossip. Traditional Jewish understanding is that tzara’at was the consequence of lashon hara, literally “evil tongue”: malicious gossip and slander. According to our sages, metzorah, the word for the afflicted person afflicted, was a contraction for motzi shem ra, meaning “bringing out a bad name.”

Later in the Torah, we will read that Miriam was afflicted with tzara’at for speaking ill of Moses. Malicious gossip and slander, the rabbis believed, caused tzara’at, and it afflicted first the dwelling place, then the clothing, and finally the skin of the slanderer. Some rabbis today say that tzara’at is a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness, hatred. The period of quarantine was not to protect others—for the affliction was not contagious—but so that the metzorah could reflect on and mend his or her ways. And purification was needed to return the person to a state where hateful speech did not contaminate the community.

Before October 7th, hateful speech had become a regular feature in Israel. Societal divisions between religious and secular, left and right, came to a head with a government proposal for judicial reform. People yelled at strangers on the street, based on their appearance and assumed lifestyle or beliefs. Politicians on opposite sides of the question badmouthed and insulted each other. This division caused Israel’s enemies to perceive weakness and attack.

And after October 7th? Before Israel had even cleared the terrorists from within its borders, let alone entered Gaza, there was an outburst of slander and libel such as the world has not seen since Goebbels’ Jew-hating propaganda. Israel has been accused of stealing organs from Palestinians killed in Gaza; purposely starving Gazans; and committing war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians, particularly children, but also journalists and NGO workers. Claims of ethnic cleansing of, and genocide against, Gazans are common. These accusations have come not only from radicals and propagandists in the Arab and Muslim world, but from “progressives” in Western democracies as well. And accusations are frequently accompanied by acts of pure, unreasoning hatred: spitting on Jews, physically assaulting them, ripping down posters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Indeed, respected news organizations have spread libels against Israel, claiming it bombed a hospital, attacked medical personnel and Arabic speakers, and summarily executed civilians.

This barrage of accusations is having its desired effect, as allies like France and America demand that Israel not invade Rafah or threaten to cut off needed arms. Unfortunately, we cannot quarantine the slanderers. Nor can we nullify the effect of their words. Although many eloquently argue Israel’s case, the damage has been done.

Our tradition tells the story of a man who gossips about another and is told by a rabbi to cut open a pillow and let the feathers scatter. Ordered to retrieve every feather, he protests it is impossible. So, too, with hateful speech, particularly in the internet age. Once people have heard lies, insults, and distortions, they cannot be unheard. In particular, libels against Jews—and now, against Israel, the Jewish nation—historically have resulted in pogroms, expulsions, and the Shoah. Since October 7th the number of antisemitic incidents has skyrocketed worldwide.

Eruptions on walls and skin have been replaced by eruptions of war and screaming mobs. An affliction of skin or garment is starting to sound like too mild a consequence for the damage caused by hateful speech.

Years ago, a company that makes cleaning products ran an ad in which a beautician had a customer soak her hands in a mysterious liquid. The customer was shocked to discover that the skin care product was ordinary dish detergent.

Where is the “detergent” that will heal the spiritual tzara’at of hatred, whether from antisemites and Israel-haters or from fellow Jews? We could all use a good soaking right about now. Our world cries out for purification. May it come soon, speedily, in our day.

POSTCRIPT:

With Pesach around the corner, I wish all who observe it chag Pesach kasher v’sameach, a happy and kosher Passover. In the middle of war and hatred, let us recall our deliverance from slavery. May all Israel be redeemed, and may our hostages especially be redeemed.

V’hi she-am’da la-avoteinu v’lanu.
Shelo echad bilvad, amad aleinu l’chaloteinu,
Ela sheb’chol dor vador, om’dim aleinu l’chaloteinu,
V’Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu mi-yadam.

And it is this that has stood by our ancestors and for us.
For not only one has risen up against us to destroy us,
But in every generation they rise up to destroy us,
But the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.

LET MY PEOPLE GO!

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.
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