This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, focuses heavily on skin disease. The people affected go through a process of isolation and recovery, during which a kohen (priest) visits them each week to check on the status of their disease. When they recover, there is a ritual procedure to put the past behind them, resume their lives and return to the community.
The skin disease described in this parsha, called tzara’at (leprosy) is a rash and discoloration of the skin, an ugly and extremely visible condition. It is also a spiritual disease, interpreted by rabbinic tradition as a punishment for gossip, or as we often call it, lashon hara. This disease is unique because it is both spiritual and physical. If our bad behavior came back to us and we were visibly punished, would we be nicer to each other? Middle-school students like myself, can be judgmental of each other. If we knew that we could get a harsh rash on our skin for speaking lashon hara, we would think more about what we say. Usually in our lives, nothing visibly bad happens to people who gossip. If someone who makes bad decisions and gossips had a physical mark like tzara’at, you could separate yourself from them and associate only with positive people. The gossiper would be isolated and have a chance to reflect upon the behavior that drove other people away.
In this week’s parsha, is the kohen’s visit primarily about inspecting the disease or inspecting the spiritual recovery of the gossiper? Perhaps it is both. The person needs to acknowledge the sin of gossipping and take responsibility for changing his or her habits. Yet, for a righteous community to re-accept the person, the gossiper’s physical appearance must also change. The improvement in physical appearance indicates that the bad habits have changed, and that God certifies their behavior as acceptable. In society, gossipers do not get leprosy, but they are isolated in a sense by being kept away from others or by being punished in other ways. As students of the Torah, we accept them back again only once they have changed. I think it is important to not only apologize, but repent and learn from your actions and change your habits.
Zachary Weintraub is a seventh grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.