Othello, WikiLeaks, and Mildewed Walls
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

The majority of Tazria and Metzora is given to the identification and cleansing of tsara’at. What is it exactly? In early Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible it was called “lepra”, giving rise to a long tradition identifying it with leprosy. But that tradition has since been debunked, firstly, because the condition described in the Torah simply does not fit the symptoms of leprosy. Second, the Torah applies it not only to various skin conditions but also to mildew on clothes and the walls of houses, which certainly rules out any known skin disease. In other words, it was not a normal phenomenon like leprosy. Tsara’at was a specific Divine punishment for lashon hara, or evil speech.

The Rabbis drew attention to the verbal similarity between metzora, a person afflicted by the condition, and motzi shem ra, someone guilty of slander. Rambam then gives a brilliant account of why tsara’at afflicted both inanimate objects like walls and clothes and human beings:

“It was a sign and wonder among the Israelites, to warn them against slanderous speaking. For if a man uttered slander, the walls of his house would suffer a change. If he repented, the house would again become clean.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, is the most compelling illustration of what the tradition is speaking about when it talks of the gravity of motsi shem ra (evil speech). Othello is a general in the army of Venice. When Iago, a high-ranking soldier, grows bitterly resentful of Othello promoting a younger man, Cassio, over him, he takes his revenge. Iago plans a vicious campaign, including tricking Othello into the suspicion that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. Tragically, Othello believes him and asks Iago to kill Cassio. Then he himself kills Desdemona in her bed. Emilia, Iago’s wife, discovers her and, as Othello explains why he has killed her, she realises the nature of her husband’s plot and exposes it. Othello, in guilt and grief, commits suicide, while Iago is arrested and possibly executed.

It is a play entirely about the evil of slander and suspicion and portrays literally what the Sages said figuratively: “Evil speech kills three people: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is said.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy makes it painfully clear how much evil speech lives in the dark corners of suspicion. With the use of evil words, Iago was able to mislead the various characters, playing on their emotional weaknesses, distrust and envy, getting each to believe the worst about the other. The result is serial bloodshed and disaster.

The Sages said that evil speech was as bad as idolatry, incest, and murder combined, and it was Shakespeare’s genius to show us one dramatic way in which it can contaminate human relationships, turning people against one another with tragic consequences. Hence, the poetic justice Jewish tradition attributes to one of the least poetic of biblical passages, the laws relating to skin diseases and mildew. The slanderer spreads lies in private, but this evil is exposed in public.

WikiLeaks was an online campaign which, at its highest, aimed to be a modern equivalent of the law of the metzora: an attempt to expose the discreditable things people do and say in private. Many confidential reports related to spying and corruption were leaked, one result being many people becoming more cautious with their words and actions. So please, never say or do in private what you would be ashamed to see shared online in a viral post, or on the front page of a newspaper. That is the basic theme of the law of tsara’at, updated to today.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. Is there ever a time when speaking negatively about somebody is acceptable?
  2. What do you think the modern-day manifestations of tsara’at are when someone speaks lashon hara about someone else?
  3. Do you think having a public consequence, like tsara’at is helpful in preventing lashon hara?
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Parsha in Passing

Tazria delves into the intricacies of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness, particularly around childbirth and tsara’at. A condition often incorrectly likened to leprosy but is a Divine affliction affecting not only humans but also clothing and buildings. The detection of tsara’at involves observing unusual white or pink patches on the skin, or dark red or green discolourations on fabric or walls. A Kohen is called upon to examine these signs, possibly after isolating the affected person or object for a week, to see if the condition worsens, and then determining whether the situation is ritually impure or pure. Individuals diagnosed with tsara’at are required to live in isolation away from the community until their teshuvah and subsequent recovery. Although tsa’arat is not experienced today, the negative impact of lashon hara is ever-present.

Tazria also calls for the brit milah of all male newborns on their eighth day and states that after childbirth, a woman must partake in a purification process involving a mikvah (a ritual bath in natural water) and the presentation of sacrifices at the Holy Temple.

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Parsha People

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Aharon: The Kohen, with a careful eye, discerns the truth in skin that lies.

The Leper: I let my words flow freely; but now I have learned - that silence is golden and reputations can be burned.

Tsara’at: A contagious mark of slanderous talk... on walls and skin, white with spots, revealing sin.

The Yoledet: A newborn’s embrace, a journey has started, and with mikvah’s touch, purity is imparted.

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Parsha Practical

One mitzvah in this parsha really hits home - that of lashon hara. In our current world this is more relevant than ever. It is all too easy to spread gossip about people using social media, and this has the potential to spread around the world in mere minutes. It’s also incredibly easy to share misinformation about current events, whether accidentally or intentionally. The story of someone who gets tsara’at is a cautionary tale, warning us to watch what we say because our words can travel far and wide, potentially hurting people’s feelings and damaging their reputations.

So, how do we keep gossip at bay? It’s all about being mindful and making a conscious effort. Start with self-reflection and empathy, thinking about how your words could impact someone else. Also, try to make the spaces you’re in - online or off - a no-gossip zone by setting the tone for positive and uplifting chats.

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Listening and giving people the benefit of the doubt can make a huge difference in building trust and respect. Plus, learning and talking about how to be ethical online can help everyone think twice before hitting “share” or “send,” making sure we’re spreading kindness and staying true to ourselves.

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Parsha Playoff

Here is a fun twist on the “Broken Telephone” game. This time, we’ll pass an entire story around a circle. Begin with a short, simple story and tell it to the first person in the group. Each subsequent person then retells the story to the next listener, adding one new detail as they pass it along. The final version of the story is then shared with the group to see how it has evolved. This is a good way to demonstrate just how easy it is for gossip to get out of hand!

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Parsha Philosophy

In Parshat Tazria, Rabbi Sacks explores just how detrimental speaking slander about someone else can be and the profound negative impact that slander can have, both ethically and physically. This behaviour not only damages the reputation of the victim of “Lashon Hara” but also visibly marks the slanderer, serving as a stark, physical symbol of the moral stain they carry.

Our Torah wants us to know that our actions, precisely the words we choose to speak about others, have tangible consequences. This powerful imagery of tsara’at serves as a cautionary tale, urging us to guard our tongues and foster a culture of positive speech and respect towards others. By doing so, we avoid the spiritual and physical repercussions of slander and contribute to building a more compassionate and understanding community.

  • What preventative measures can you take in your social circles to prevent lashon hara?
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Parsha Parable

Saving Stars

One bright morning, a man found himself wandering along a vast beach. In the aftermath of the night’s high tide, thousands of starfish lay stranded on the shimmering sand. As he walked, he noticed a young girl moving among the starfish with a purposeful grace. One by one, she bent down, gently picked up a starfish, and tossed it back into the welcoming embrace of the ocean waves.

Intrigued by her actions, the man approached the girl, his curiosity piqued. “Why spend your time doing this?” he asked, gesturing to the seemingly endless expanse of beach and starfish. “There are thousands of starfish here. Perhaps even millions. Surely, you can’t believe that what you’re doing makes any real difference?”
The girl paused, her next starfish in hand, and met the man’s gaze with a calm and steady look. Without a word, she tossed the starfish into the sea, where it sank beneath the waves, safe once more. Turning back to the man, she offered a gentle, confident smile and said, “To that one starfish, it made all the difference in the world.”

Her words helped the man realise something profound. As they stood together in the soft morning light, the vast beach no longer seemed just a place full of starfish but instead a place for individual acts of kindness and hope.

Is there a meaningful act of kindness that you can do today?

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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Do...

...if you found out someone had been gossiping about you? How would you react? What would you expect from the gossiper?

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Parsha Puzzle


Q. Can you name seven types of liquid which make a food susceptible to ritual contamination from a tumah source? (See below for the answer)

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

Wine, honey, oil, milk, dew, blood, and water (Rambam, Hilchot Tumat Ochlin 1:2).

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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