In the famous Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins teaches the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolitle to “speak proper English,” based on his studies of language and phonetics. The case of the young woman whose inability to speak properly locks her into a lower strata of society is, at least to some extent, a bit similar to the understanding of the Biblical instruction about something called “tzara-as.” Eliza Doolittle eventually learns to speak properly, and is blessed as a result of her efforts. The Bible seems to focus on the case of those who do NOT, and suffer for that failure. And while that Hebrew word is generally mistranslated into English as “leprosy”, the disease now called by that name (aka “Hansen’s Disease”) may not be the same malady outlined in Scripture at all. See Leviticus, or Vayikra, chapters 13 and 14 for the extensive details.
The similarity between stories about speech, for good or for evil, is more than “skin-deep”, however. And while I won’t try to demonstrate in this short article all of the reasons why I have finally become convinced that the standard midrashic teaching about “tzara-as” – that it is very much a spiritual problem, once manifested as a physical plague – is valid, a few of the main arguments do help make the point: Tzara-as is directly linked to the problem of gossip, or the “evil tongue,” rendered “lashon hora” in Hebrew.
It is often said that speaking lashon hora about someone is the equivalent of “murder by the tongue,” and that the fallout from this particularly pernicious act destroys not ONLY the intended victim who is being spoken about, but also one who speaks it, and all those who listen and perhaps pass it along.
And the quantity of ink in the Bible devoted to the use, and abuse, of language, the tongue, and speech is literally awe inspiring. After all, our Creator literally spoke the world into existence, and offers dozens of warnings and examples.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” Proverbs 18:21
“…I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.” (Psalm 39:1)
“…Your tongue devises destruction,
Like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. You love evil more than good,
Lying rather than speaking righteousness. SELAH
You love all devouring words,
You deceitful tongue.” (Psalm 52:2-4)
“…the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
…And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
…But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.” (Yakov 3:5-10 – aka “James”)
Perhaps at the top of the list of important things we speak from our lips are vows, the entire subject of Numbers chapter 30. It has been my contention for some time that the biggest issue in marriages today may well be that the world has ignored the lessons taught there. And the situation with public servants, from police and military to elected “public servants” who take an oath before God is perhaps even more malignant. Lies, broken vows, deception coming from the mouth, and gosssip can obviously not only kill individuals, but evidently whole societies as well.
Furthermore, the description of the plague which once resulted from the Evil Tongue sounds more than a bit like death as well. The pallor, the rotting skin, and the immediate result – that the perpetrator would be cut off from people, sent outside the camp, and forced to declare “unclean, unclean” to anyone that might try to come near – all speak of the contagion associated with the scourge, and the curses that result.
It all sounds quite unpleasant. So much so that people are often inclined to dismiss the whole subject of “leprosy” with the arguably misguided observation that “it doesn’t matter” anymore because ‘modern medicine’ has cured the problem anyway.
But the problem is that the plague described in the Bible as tzara-at is NOT really modern leprosy at all. And neither are we in the Land of Promise any more. Is it just possible that the punishment of tzara-as for evil speech – like so many of the other curses, chastenings, and warnings of His Word – is intended for our BLESSING as well? Is it just possible that, being in exile “for cause” as a result of continuing idolatry that we now suffer a different kind of plague, and an even more severe punishment
for the increasingly evil forms of speech which pervade society?
The lesson for the “metzora” (one who suffers tzara-as) is ultimately so clear, and so consistent with the other remedies in Scripture. T’shuva; repent from the evil action that got us into this situation. If lashon hora is the cause of that plague, and the only kind of speech permitted to the victim once sent away into exile is to shout “unclean, unclean” to any who come near, the lesson is to “tame the tongue.” Even the resolution of the malady is reminiscent of the terminology of death, albeit in reverse: Following his healing, and cleansing via the process conducted by the priest, the metzora is RE-gathered to his people.
Before she learns to speak properly, “My Fair Lady,” Liza Doolittle speaks a bit of lashon hora herself about her strict taskmaster, and ultimately benefactor, Professor Henry Higgins, in a famous song. “Wouldn’t it be loverly?” she opines, if evil were to befall him.
When we look at society today, it is not calling evil, “good,” and good, “evil,” that characterizes the common speech, it is the glorification of foul mouths and evil tongues. From TV sitcoms to “gossip shows” the idea of gossip as something to be proud of pervades the culture. It should come as no surprise that it is gossip which literally tears so many churches and communities apart. Perhaps that is a “measure for measure” reward from YHVH, too, for a society and “Church” that teach His Word has been “done away with”, and doesn’t matter any more anyway. As His Instruction so clearly says, those lies, and that Evil Speech, bring curses.
As we begin to “come out of her” and separate ourselves from the “unclean things” that bring curses, we must learn to not only “walk the narrow path” that leads to Him, but guard our speech as well. Speak blessings, and not cursings. Honor our contracts, vows, and commitments. We evidently no longer have the “blessing” – even if it amounts to very “tough love” – of looking in the mirror and seeing our external coverings – from houses, to clothes, to the very skin of our bodies – begin to rot off when we are speaking evil. Perhaps, in hindsight, and given what is so clearly coming, it would be easier if the consequences were more obvious, more immediate, and arguably less ultimately fatal.
If YHVH has removed this particular type of “chastening” (remember – those He loves, He chastens!) as a result of our repeated rebellion to Him, and our praising of other gods with our lips instead of Him, during this time of exile, we must learn to guard the words of our mouths, and speak blessing or keep silent. If we are to build communities which will be pleasing to Him in the difficult times ahead, and “be counted worthy” to escape the plagues which are coming, we may have to do it without the kind of “direct feedback” that was once given His people.
Perhaps we must learn to pray as Job did again. “Teach me, and I will hold my tongue: and cause me to understand wherein I have erred.” (Job 6:24)
Tzara-as has appropriately been described as an outward physical manifestation of an inward spiritual wickedness. But we don’t have it any more. “Wouldn’t it be loverly” if we did?