Sunday, April 22, 2018

Parashot Tazria-Messora: Speech

A Message for Parashot Tazria-Messora 2018
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Although the laws regarding sara’at (leprosy) are detailed at length throughout Parashot Tazria and Messorah, the cause of this plague is never once mentioned. The Hakhamim traced its source to the sin of lashon hara – evil talk. They thus understood, for example, that the verse “Don’t let your mouth defile your flesh” (Kohelet 5:5) refers to sara’at,[1] and that the word “messora” (leper) can be broken down to its root of “mossi shem ra” (one who speaks badly about others).[2]

A messora is furthermore envisioned by the Hakhamim as the paradoxical embodiment of a “living dead person.” Noticing Aharon’s description of Miriam when she was plagued by leprosy – “Like a dead person who when he comes out of his mother’s womb, half his flesh is eaten away” (Bemidbar 12:12) – they stated: “a messora is considered dead.”[3]

Piecing matters together, the integrated message of the Hakhamim seems to be that the improper use of speech is a cause for death. Indeed, the Talmud relates that Rava crafted a golam – a human-created life-being – and sent it to R. Zeira. R. Zeira attempted to talk to the golam. To his astonishment, he found that it did not respond and lacked any ability to speak. R. Zeira was thus unimpressed with Rava’s “speechless” creation and deemed it worthless.[4] His reaction implies that the value of a human being’s existence is measured by their speech.[5]

In his book How Language Began, Daniel Everett took note of mankind’s dominance of this world. He speculated that our strength is so solid that if dinosaurs were still alive today, humans would kill them for trophies, eat them, or put them in parks and zoos. Everett described humans as “the apex predators of all time on this planet,” and attributed our advantage over all other species to speech. He wrote: “Because humans can talk they can plan, they can share knowledge, they can even leave knowledge for future generations.”[6]

Steven Pinker similarly wrote about the importance of speech to human life in his book The Language Instinct. He described the difficulty of imagining our lives without speech, suggesting that if you were to find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they would probably soon be exchanging words. Pinker sensed speech’s essential role in our lives in the devastating effects of aphasia, a brain injury that causes loss of language. In mild cases of aphasia, a painful void emerges from the loss of speech, while in more severe cases family members feel that the whole person is lost forever.[7]

Returning to our analysis of the messora, let us take note of an essential part of the messora’s prescribed “treatment”:
All the days that the affliction is on him …he shall dwell apart – outside of the camp shall his dwelling place be. (Vayikra 13:46)
This socially-secluded state is parallel to that of a mourner of death:
Let him sit alone and be silent. (Eikhah 3:28)
Humans have the unique capability to build communities, cultures and societies with their speech. Depriving them of speech means stripping them of human life. A mourner experiences the death of his loved one by temporarily living in a quasi-state of being. And the messora, who has perverted his use of speech, is destined to discover the true essence of his life-determining capability to speak by experiencing its fatal loss.

Nessiv (R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin) noted that the extent of a being’s demise is inversely related to its potential for elevation. A rock is forever a rock. A plant, however, possesses a greater potential for elevation, and therefore decomposes when it is stripped of its ability to grow. An animal’s demise is even more extreme than a plant, as the loss of its life causes the stench of erosion and rot.[8] It follows, therefore, that a human’s loss of their elevated ability to appropriately speak lands them in an unimaginably deficient state of being.

The Hakhamim drew a line from improper speech to death through their descriptions of the messora. They were aware of the integral role of speech to human existence and taught that the value of our lives is determined by the use of our tongues.

[1] Vayikra Rabah16:5.
[2] Arakhin 15b.
[3] See the Commentary of Rashi ad. loc., s.v. “ke-met.”
[4] Sanhedrin 65b.
[5] This was noted by R. Moshe Shapiro z”l, as cited in MiMa’amakim: Vayikra (Jerusalem, IS, 2015), pg. 159 fn. 1.
[6] Daniel L. Everett, How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 15.
[7] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York, NY, 1994), pg. 3.
[8] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, She’ar Yisrael (Jerusalem, 2008), pg. 271 (chap. 5). Cited in R. Aryeh Leibowitz’s The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul (Nanuet, NY, 2018), pg. 17 fn. 9.