“As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn…and he shall…cry ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev.13:45-46)
The physical condition of leprosy is a real thing. The disease still exists today. However, in the Bible we find an inconsistent testimony about it, resulting in its association with sin.
In the laws of ritual purity, there are instructions and commandments concerning physical conditions that are a natural part of life, such as a woman’s menstrual cycle, and the process of giving birth, and also the impurity imparted by a corpse. In the Torah and in Jewish law, a woman in menstruation, seminal emissions and a corpse are equal to idolatry in their ability to defile a person from ritual purity.
It is strange, then, that when the Torah speaks of tzara’at, what the English translators have termed “leprosy”, it treats the condition not just as a fact of life, but as a condition which is dangerous to others. Unlike leprosy, the Hebrew understanding of tzara’at includes conditions that are not contagious. If so, then why this?
“When the infection of leprosy is on a man, then he shall be brought to the priest.” (Lev.13:9)
Why is tzara’at associated with sin, and why does it (unlike the other conditions mentioned) result in exile from the community?
There is a verse later in the Torah which led the sages to look deeper at this issue:
“Be careful against an infection (literally: “a mark”) of leprosy, that you diligently observe and do according to all that the Levitical priests teach you; as I have commanded them, so you shall be careful to do. Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt.” (Deut.24:8-9)
What happened to Miriam, of course, is that she was stricken by the LORD with leprosy for gainsaying Moses behind his back (Num.12:1-9).
The sages taught, in a midrash, that this is how we are to understand tzara’at in the Bible; as evil speech, or lashon hara.
…Afflictions (of tzara’at) do not come except for evil speech as it says ” Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that priests and Levites shall teach you… Remember what Lord, your God did to Miriam … (Devarim 24, 8-9)”. How are the two related? To teach that this happens because of evil speech…R. Shimon ben Eliezer says: Also for prideful spirit plagues come, for so we find by Uziah: And when he was strong, his heart was lifted up… and he went into the Temple of the L-rd to burn incense… the leprosy rose up in his forehead… (Chronicles II, 26, 16-19 (Toras Kihanim Metsorah 5,7)
The exile of the leper from the camp of Israel is no doubt why, both in the Torah and in the teachings of the sages, it is alluded to metaphorically as representative of the concept of exile and the longing for redemption. Perhaps this connection to the hope of redemption is the reason why the healing of lepers holds such a prominent place in the gospel accounts of the ministry of Yeshua. Both Jeremiah (in Lamentations) and Isaiah use imagery from these chapters in Leviticus to describe the state of Israel in exile.
But, if the condition is a result of God afflicting a person, then this begs the question: What causes the affliction to happen?
According to rabbinic tradition, it comes about as a result of evil speech, or lashon hara.
The following quote helps to illuminate the surpassing importance of our communication, our speech, to a life of godliness:
“When we examine the workings of our words, we come to see that they, more than any other human capacity, define us. What we say and how we say it is who we are. Angry, hurtful words define an angry, hurtful person. Kind, considerate words define a kind, considerate person. This can be seen by considering the unique nature of the tongue: it is partly hidden and partly revealed. It is usually not seen, but it is heard. Maharal concludes that HaShem designed the tongue to reflect its function, which is to reveal the hidden self – one’s thoughts, ideas and personality. The tongue takes these hidden elements from within the person and, through words, brings them into the open.” – Chofetz Chaim, “A Lesson a Day”, Artscroll, pg.xxi
The Apostle James expressed very similar thoughts in his epistle:
“The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell…With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.” (Js.2:6,9-10)
Perhaps the most powerful lesson of all concerning evil speech is the ritual that the Torah prescribes for the purification of the leper which has been cleansed (Lev.14:4-7).
The live bird is dipped into the water that is mixed with the blood of the bird which has been slaughtered.
This vivid picture tells the story of what evil speech, and wicked gossip, accomplishes; it not only affects the one spoken about, it stains the one who speaks. The idea of speech is present in the ritual from the Oral Law, as found in the Talmud:
“R. Yehudah ben Levi said: What is different about the metzora that the Torah said that he should bring two birds to purify him? The Holy Blessed One said—He did an act of babbling [through speaking lashon hara], therefore the Torah said that he should bring a sacrifice that babbles [i.e chirps].” (Talmud Arakhin 16b)
Rabbi Dena Weiss observes:
“As R. Yehudah ben Levi taught us, the birds in this ritual represent us. Through the process of slaughtering one bird and dipping the live bird in its blood, we re-enact the drama of the speaking of lashon hara. The ritual forces the one who watches it to vicariously experience the cruelty of their words.” Dena Weiss, “Confronting the Consequences”, http://www.hadar.org
When we speak lashon hara, we literally are swallowing the life of another. Paul calls it “devouring”.
“But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal.5:15)
I have observed a curious but consistent phenomenon in my many years in faith communities: When a person defiles themselves through gossip and evil speech, they end up being exiled. The funny thing is, they exile themselves. Often, when the situation is awkward enough, they simply remove themselves from fellowship.
This answers the strange law which demands that a person who is healed of tzara’at must bring an atoning sacrifice for himself. It re-establishes the person as a member of the community in good standing by reminding them, visually, of what it is that they have done.
In light of all this, it is most interesting that Yeshua would make such a point to heal this condition; a state of being which was indicative of the state of the leadership of Israel at that time.
“When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed.” (Lk.17:14)
We know that the rabbis concluded that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, and a significant manifestation of this sin is evil speech.
The Messiah, proclaiming the kingdom, heals the sickness that plagues God’s people, but like with the woman caught in adultery, doesn’t leave them there. He exhorts to repentance and obedience.
“She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (Jn.8:11)
A big part of the atonement of the Messiah is medical. He comes to us as we wallow in the blood of our slain victims; people who would be flying free and joyfully but for our tongue of sword and flame. He heals and seals the wound, and brings us to the Father.
What else can we do but joyfully serve our God, when such grace is ours?
Let’s speak life to life, and not death to death, lest in our coming together, we exile ourselves.