Words as Weapons of Murder Metzora
We all should know the old Rabbinic word game of “ gematria”. That is where we pull apart a word, letter by letter, assign each letter a number value. The next step is to find another word whose letters have the same value, and then say “Ahah”! There’ s a connection. The best example you know is 18, because when you take the number and transpose it to its alphabetical equivalent, you get Yod for Ten, Chet for 8, reverse them , and you have “Chai” for “ Life”.
The are many other letter games and number games. There is “ atbash” , in which the letters of the alphabet are read as if they were in revese order, so that an alef stands for a shin, a bet stands for a Taf, or “av-gad”, where the letter stands for the letter following it in the alphabet, alef for Bet, gimmel for daled. It’s a Kosher kind of Pig Latin.
So we have another one, which comes very handy for the sages when they are stumped for an explanation,” notarikon”, where the word is taken apart and reread as if each letter were an an abbreviation. You can see that this leads to a lot of creativity.
This is exactly what is done, in rabbinic lore, to explain the phenomenon that is described in the readings of last week and this week, Metzora. Metzora, as we understand from the reading, which translated as “ leprosy” is not leprosy, and it is not anything that medical scientists can clearly identify—neither could the Rabbis!. It is a disease that manifests itself on the skin but also on stone buildings. The treatment is not a medical treatment but one of isolation. Therefore, the one way our sages could determine the intention of the word was to pull it apart- notarikon.
We have in it Mem-Tzadik-Resh-Eyin. Mem-Tzadik is short for “ Motzi”- to spread out, and Resh-Ayin is the word “Ra” evil. What kind of evil can be easily spread out and only stopped by quarantine—why “ Motzi Shem Ra”- Spreading out of an evil and maliscious slander . That is the dangerous “skin disease” that the Torah is dealing with.
Why would this “ condition” require treatment by isolation?
It is because, as our sages taught, that the sin, the act of slander, is as criminal as the act of murder. Thus, number six of the Ten Commandments, which states, “ Lo Tirzach”, ” Thou shalt not Murder,” was interpreted as “Thou shalt Not Shame or Embarrass ", for insult and slander have the power of killing. They called it "Malbin pney havero" --making one's fellow's face grow pale, bloodless from shame. When one is shamed, the blood leaves the face as if one had been stabbed.
Add to that, the commandment “ Lo Tisa” You shall not take God’s name in vain” and “ “Lo Taane ed Sheker”.You shall not bear false witness.” and we have a very tight case to be made against someone bad mouthing another.
Words , our sages taught, was deadlier than weapons. A knife or sword, or even gun, could kill the victim, but a malicious word of slander or gossip could kill three--the victim, the slanderer, and the people who listened to slander. Think of the power of words unleashed by skillful propagandists like Hitler , think of the millions who died as a result, and you see my point.
Why do I mention this in particular?
Because I believe that our words--our language, our tone of voice, in our every day usage, has grown to become a monster.
Here is my point from a noted journalist, Nina Easton, back in the 90’s ( which seems so last century):
Cutting insults, crude put-downs, and vulgar viscious personal lampoons are dominating mainstream entertainment. . .
" American pop culture is rich with examples of misogyny, racism and homophobia,Need some Anti-semitism? The syndicated TV series" Uptown Comedy Club recently featured a skit about the law firm of "Judacy", where Hasidic lawyers sing, "I really want to sue you, I really want to overcharge you."
Perhaps, though, the media, print, television, radio, cinema, perhaps they have no impact. Perhaps they neither impact our society, nor reflect our society. What about our innocent children--surely they are different. So grade school children , reflecting their parents thoughts, have a popular song. Forget " Mary had a little lamb."Try this one:
I shot my teacher with a .44 gun//I didn't miss her, her class was no fun//... I took a bazooka and blew off her head."
Let no one say that these are mere words, that words have no impact, that people are merely spouting off, to vent themselves.
Ask any dictator if he believes that words have no impact. Dictators are often put in power by their creative abuse of the word, and dictators stay in power, by controlling what anyone else may say.
If words can have the power to keep our democracy alive and vital, they can also serve to undermine our society.
Increasingly, researchers speak of the meanness " of our society, of the" psychological violence" that pervades everyday language. It pervades our politics. Look at our language of public discourse. Democrats and Republicans, Reds and Blues, especially over the course of the tenures of the past and current Presidents, use exceedingly strident language against each other.
It pervades our children, who go on line, and take the Metzora and spred it virally on facebook, twitter, and other apps.
I had mentioned Hitler. You know that Hitler’s mentor was a journalist and a socialist leader. This journalist who understood the power of the printed and spoken word. he understood how language could be used to galvanize a people to evil, and how , through language, violence could be made a sacred goal in itself, how, through language, one people could be pitted against another people. Benito Mussolini's fascism, which is still echoed today, begins in the house, nursery, in the schools.
Fascism and Nazism saw in Judaism there direct enemy, for Judaism believes and teaches the opposite.
Six hundred years ago, a simple Jew of the town of Mayence, in the Rhineland, left his children with this message, it is a classical Jewish message, to the nature of language and our words:
I earnestly beg my children to be tolerant and humble to all, as I was throughout my life. Should cause for dissension present itself, be slow to accept the quarrel; seek peace and pursue it with all the vigor at your command. Even if you suffer loss thereby, forbear and forgive, for God has many ways of feeding and sustaining his creatures. To the slanderer, do not retaliate with counterattack; and though it be proper to rebut false accusations, yet it is most desirable to set an example of reticence. You yourselves must avoid uttering any slander, for so will you win affection. In trade be true, never grasping at what belongs to another. For by avoiding these wrongs, -scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing---men will surely find tranquility and affection. And against all evils, silence is the best safeguard."
A lot of radio talk show hosts, politicians and gossip columnists may go bankrupt if they follow this advice but life would be so much nicer for us all, wouldn’t it..
At the end of the Amidah, there is a personal prayer, Alohai neztor leshoni--My God, guard my tongue from evil, a nd my lips from uttering deceit. One of the great Jewish teachers of the past century, Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen, was known by the title of his book, Hafetz Chayim--Seek life. It reflects on the theme of that prayer, and the verse of the psalms, which says: Who is the man who seeks life, and length of days to see good? Just hold your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile." Language, he taught, was the basis of all the evils in our lives, and also the basis for building and creating the good life.
How do we cure the plague of Metzora—our verbal contagion? We do so by starting with ourselves. We refuse to participate in maligning any one, we teach that to our children and grandchildren. We counter it with acts of " Gemilut Hasadim", acts of lovingkindness' .'These acts begin with our words. This is our medicine, this is our surgical procedure, this is our “occupational therapy.” We remove formour mouths “ Sinat Hinam”—Groundless hatred of our fellow, and replace it with Ahavat Hinam- Groudless love of our fellow.” May our words always be words of truth-not of deceit, words of healing-not of harming, words of shalom, peace, never of violence, words of ahavat hinam, causeless love, never of sinat hinam, useless hate. Amen