WHEN YOU HAVE a problem with your skin, you go to a skin doctor. Unless, of course it was tzara’as, in which case a skin doctor would not do you much good. If it was only leprosy, then maybe a skin doctor could help. But tzara’as required a kohen to determine its status, and to advise a metzora how to precede. His advice never included over-the-counter or prescription drugs, just some serious teshuvah.
As we see from Moshe Rabbeinu, whose hand turned white as snow for speaking badly about the Jewish people, and then later from his sister Miriam, who got tzara’as for doing the same thing about her brother Moshe, tzara’as is in response to loshon hara. But when too many people began to speak loshon hara too freely, God stopped giving tzara’as. Like prophecy, the punishment of tzara’as only lasts as long as people will listen to it.
Before we go and celebrate our license to kill with our tongues, we should realize that we have gained nothing. If anything, we have lost, because the offense of loshon hara is as serious as it has ever been. It’s just that rather than pay for it in this world, we’ll just have to pay for it in the next one, and that is never better. Accidentally biting your tongue or breaking a tooth doesn’t quite match up with the embarrassment and hassle of tzara’as.
The question is, why the skin? What is the connection between a person’s skin and their mouth? Even though tzara’as starts off on the walls of the house, moves to the clothing if they don’t do teshuvah, the final destination of tzara’as is the loshon hara speaker’s skin. Since God punishes measure-for-measure, there must be something to that.
In the past I have shown the connection to the transformation of Adam HaRishon’s skin from skin of light to skin of flesh. As Rashi explains in Parashas Shemos, God told Moshe that loshon hara is the craft of the snake, and it was the snake’s words that led to the eating from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra and the original skin transformation. Tzara’as is a throwback to that.
Another idea is that when a person speaks loshon hara, they are being superficial. Actions can be deceiving. Accurately understanding what people do can only be the result of many things we can’t know about. We don’t know about all the things that happened to us to make us who we are, so how can possibly know this about others?
THE SYMBOL OF such superficiality is the skin. When we say that something is only “skin deep,” we mean that it lacks depth. When a person speaks loshon hara, not only do they not perform the thorough investigation necessary to judge the person worthy of such loshon hara, they can’t. Only God can. Only He can know everything about a person and if they are guilty or innocent. This makes the speaking of loshon hara reckless, if not actually trying to act like God, which the yetzer hara tends to make us do.
The three stages of tzara’as give us the opportunity to wake up to this and do teshuvah on our own. It first affects the walls of a person’s house because they hide how a person behaves in private. Many people act one way outside the house and a very different way inside the house. At home, people let their guard down and their true self pours out. If a person read the tzara’as writing on the wall, they could save themselves a lot of humiliation and inconvenience. It’s a skin-deep message to the person.
If not, it moves to their clothing. This is something that we wear in both places, inside and outside the house. It’s Heaven taking a second warning shot, this time a little closer to home, so-to-speak. Shooting in the air did not make the loshon hara speaker back down. So, Heaven takes another shot at the feet of the person, in a manner of speaking, to see if that gets them to right their wrong.
But tzara’as on the clothing is still not as bad as tzara’as on the skin, especially since the person does not need to be sent outside the camp and walk around in public yelling out, “Impure! Impure!” The pain is no longer skin-deep but goes right to the heart of the matter…and the person. For acting like a dead person, that is insensitive to the life of another, they are treated like a dead person.
Since this is a leap year, Parashas Tazria comes before Pesach instead of after it. This gives us an opportunity to connect it to the whole idea of redemption, which it is. Superficiality is not a Jewish thing, or at least it is not supposed to be. But what people who live superficially do not realize is how it enslaves them to their own version of Pharaoh, their personal yetzer hara. The greatest sign that a person has that they are a slave to their yetzer hara is the ease with which they can speak loshon hara. They may feel as if they benefit from speaking it, but in reality, they hurt themself each time they do, in this world and certainly in the next one.
They also set themselves up for some kind of divine punishment for it as well. We learn this from the Talmud that says that even though the Sanhedrin may not exist today to give out punishment, Heaven has other ways to do it through “natural” life occurrences (Kesuvos 30b).
THE GEMORA ASKS about the relevancy of capital punishment once the Sanhedrin no longer had the authority to carry them out. It answers the following:
Since the day of the destruction of the Temple, although the Sanhedrin ceased, the four forms of capital punishment have not ceased. They have not ceased, [you say]? Surely they have ceased! But [say] the judgment of the four forms of capital punishment has not ceased. He who would have been sentenced to stoning either falls down from the roof or a wild beast treads him down. He who would have been sentenced to burning either falls into a fire or a serpent bites him. He who would have been sentenced to decapitation is either delivered to the government or robbers come upon him. He who would have been sentenced to strangulation is either drowned in the river or dies from suffocation. (Kesuvos 30a)
This is true of capital punishment and lesser offenses as well. And given what Chazal say about the seriousness of loshon hara, it can be assumed that God doesn’t just look the other way or turn the other ear when people speak it. There may not be any tzara’as today, but there are other skin-related illnesses, or other ways to rectify a person’s propensity to speak loshon hara. Sometimes we don’t have to be told to bite our tongues. It just happens on its own, or any number of other mishaps that might be the divine response to our loshon hara.
But what is the worst punishment of all for speaking loshon hara? Nothing at all. There is nothing to get away with. If a person cuts off their finger and no one is around to witness it, have they gained anything? Just the opposite.
Likewise, loshon hara may just seem to be words that vanish as quickly as they emerged, but that is only what it seems to us. We can’t see the damaging angels we have created with our words which will not only testify against us on our day of judgment, but which wreak all kinds of havoc in our personal lives. For damaging relationships with loshon hara, we may pay with damaged relationships elsewhere for reasons we can’t fathom.
At least in the good old days a person could get tzara’as. The kohen could come and confirm it, and the message was clear. The person was guilty of loshon hara. Stop it, or else. How many people who got tzara’as once did not change their life after that to avoid getting it a second time?
Today, we have no clear-cut way to know if what we are undergoing is tied to any loshon hara we might have spoken. How many people even consider the possibility? Hashgochically, they cannot hurt anyone God does not intend to be hurt for reasons of their own. But the speaker of loshon hara damages themself in ways that will not only bite them later, but will cause them to be increasingly desensitized to the sin they are committing.
The Zohar says that you can size a person up by the way they speak. What comes out of our mouths is the best indicator of our soul-body combination. If our speech is spiritually-rich, then it shows our soul leads in life. If the opposite, it means we are slaves to our bodies and yetzer haras.
As Chazal point out, Pesach is also peh sach, the mouth that spoke. The Jewish people left the Egyptians once and for all by a place called Pi HaChiros, the Mouth of Freedom. One that speaks in a spiritually-refined manner is truly a free person.
IT IS A curious thing. Each year we sit down to make a Pesach Seder to commemorate an event that the vast majority of the world thinks is fictitious. But we do it anyhow, even Jews whose lives reflect their disbelief in the very origin of this time-honored tradition.
We are not the only people to do this. Various different religions and cultures also continue to celebrate long-ago historical events, the spirits of which are often contradicted by the present-day lives of their celebrants. That’s the power of tradition: it can keep alive even that which, for all intents-and-purposes, is actually dead.
Is it hypocrisy? A lot of times.
Perhaps this is part of what is bothering the Evil Son. He’s the main antagonist in the Haggadah because he dares to ask the question: “What does this service mean to you?”
And though we break his teeth for asking such a question, and wag a proverbial finger at him saying, “Had you been there, you certainly would not have been redeemed!” his question is indeed a good one. In fact, it is one the Haggadah each year asks us all to answer by the end of the evening, for the right answer is not only liberating, it is freedom itself.
The problem with the Evil Son is not his question; it is his answer. His question is his answer because for him it is rhetorical. He may have phrased his words as a question, but he was really making a statement: Though this service may have made sense back in the days of Egyptian slavery, it is meaningless today.
Okay. For making fun of tradition we break his teeth, metaphorically-speaking. However, if he is in agreement that once-upon-a-time all of this was necessary, then why do we tell him that had he been in Egypt at the time of the redemption, he would have been one of those who did not go out?
Because he has missed the point of the Haggadah, of the Pesach-Offering, of the entire concept of redemption.
Sure, we no longer worship Egyptian gods, and therefore no longer have to parade through the streets with lambs to prove that we do not fear them or adhere to their religious values.
But that was not the entire story of the Korban Pesach, just a part of it. After all, when Kayin and Hevel brought their offerings to God (Bereishis 4:3), it was on the fourteenth day of Nissan. They had brought Pesach Offerings. And, as the Brisker Rav points out, Avraham Avinu ate matzah on the fifteenth of Nissan, hundreds of years before there was even an Egyptian exile!
This begs the question: Do we eat matzah because there wasn’t enough time to bake bread, or was there not enough time to bake bread so that we would eat matzah? Because, contrary to the Evil Son’s thinking, mitzvos are eternal. They supersede our daily reality and are never the result of circumstance. If anything, they make circumstances possible, such as the leaving of Egypt in Moshe’s time, and the leaving of exile at the End-of-Days.
It is the Chacham, the wise son in each generation who understands this. Hence, the Haggadah’s response to his question is the opposite of the one given to his evil brother:
You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Pesach, [up to] “one is not to eat any dessert after the Pesach lamb.”
The Wise Son is the person who understands one of the most important ideas of Creation, and yet one of the least-known: Redemption is a de facto state of existence. To understand this, it is important to first understand the concept of exile.
When we think of the first exile, we think of the Jewish people in Egyptian bondage. However, the Egyptian exile was really the result, and in many respects, a replication of the original exile of all of mankind. In the beginning, man was created into a state of redemption. Immediately after being formed by God, Adam HaRishon was placed in the Garden of Eden where he lived an idyllic existence. The life of the first man is the one that we all dream of living if we merit to make it to Yemos HaMoshiach—the Messianic Era.
Eating from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra—the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—changed all of that. The bottom line is that within one day of being created and placed into Paradise, mankind was forced to leave it, and the question is, why? The answer is, the transformation of man:
The creation of Heaven and Earth and their components was with the Supernal Light, and they existed on a very elevated and awesome level, specifically man who was higher than all of them. However, after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil, he and everything else descended and was transformed from skin made of light to human skin. (Hakdamos uSha’arim, Sha’ar 6, Ch. 10)
Though man has always consisted of a body and soul, before the sin they both existed on a much higher spiritual plane. A human body once more closely resembled a soul than the body we now have, made of divine light rather than of opaque skin. Sin resulted in skin, and the distancing of man from God. That is the very definition of exile, and the Pesach Seder comes to reverse that. To be continued…