Certain parts of the Bible are easy to appreciate. We know we should not murder, steal or commit adulerty. We know why we should try to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even if we struggle to follow these types of laws, we know they matter today.
Yet, certain other parts seem irrelevant. Difficult biblical passages challenge us constantly. One of them addresses the topic of leprosy.
In the book of Leviticus, the Bible prescribes an intricate series of actions to be taken when someone has leprosy, including quarantine and sacrificial offerings.
Then it proceeds to describe a series of ritual actions to be taken after the sores have healed. The language is technical and graphic. Clearly, the spread of leprosy was a concern at the time. Yet, what possible meaning can it have for us today?
Here are two possible answers:
1. The 11th century Jewish sage Rashi pointed out that the Hebrew word for leprosy resembles the Hebrew word for “gossip.” Like leprosy, gossip spreads quickly through a community. It hurts those whom it infects. It can also isolate people from one another.
It can even kill, as has been so tragically reflected in recent reports about the suicides of two female teens whose lives had been plagued by gossip and bullying. We need to do everything we can to guard against and avoid gossip.
2. The 18th century sage Samson Hirsch points out that the Bible suggests leprosy strikes “only after the land has been completely divided up into individual holdings so that every home has its own permanent inhabitant.” In other words, the people did not experienced a leprosy crisis until they had settled into their homes.
While this observation does not make sense medically, it does convey a moral lesson. The way we behave where we spend the most time matters deeply.
It is easy to be polite in a restaurant or at work. It is easy to put on our game face or our good manners.
When we are settled in our homes, however; when we are with the people who know us best, we can become complacent. We can take them for granted. We can let our worst insticts take over
Hirsch uges us not to do so. The temptation to gossip, to spread ill will about others, exerts a stronger influence in a place where we know everyone. What we say can hurt people more sharply.
Thus, it is here that we have greater responsibility. It is here where our words matter most.
A fellow rabbi once told me that it’s easy to give a great sermon when you are the guest speaker. The harder and more important sermon is the one we tell with our lives. It is the one we deliver with our deeds. It is the one we live with our hands and our hearts.
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