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What does tzara'at have to do with us?

Translation by Yehoshua Siskin

At first glance, there does not appear to be any connection between this week's Torah portions (Tazria-Tzara'at) and Independence Day. These Torah portions deal extensively with tzara'at. A person guilty of lashon hara (insulting, derogatory, or divisive speech) was punished with tzara'at, a condition of skin discoloration and hair loss that could ultimately infect clothes and houses, too. The sinful individual had to undergo a period of isolation until the necessary lesson had been learned, tzara'at disappeared, and a return to human society was granted.

Yet if we look at history, we will discover that the culture of speech is intimately associated with our independent existence on this land. Lashon hara, gossip, curses, baseless hatred -- all of these resulted in exile from the Land of Israel. It began as early as the Garden of Eden. Our commentators explain that the serpent spoke lashon hara about G-d. Adam and Eve believed the serpent and therefore sinned and were punished with expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Later, Yosef spoke lashon hara about his brothers. He would bring slanderous stories about them to Ya'akov. The result? Descent into Egyptian exile for many long years. After we finally left Egypt, the spies spoke lashon hara about the Land of Israel. Instead of choosing positive and optimistic words regarding the Promised Land they nearly succeeded in persuading the people to cease their journey towards it. The result? 40 years of wandering in the desert.

There are many such stories and all of them happened before the era of social media networks and the abysmal language that they produce. From the standpoint of lashon hara, the content of political discussions and media presentations is sinful. It doesn't matter what your opinion happens to be about a certain individual (in favor of Netanyahu or against him, for example); the very act of expressing a divisive opinion is likely to endanger our existence here together. So perhaps the Torah portion that we will read on Shabbat should serve as a warning sign: if we want to celebrate many more Independence Days, we must remember that a society without a culture of refined speech – where people curse, slander, gossip, and shame others – will not survive. It's up to us.

Shabbat shalom.


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