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Vayikra/Leviticus 14:35 And he shall announce to the priest, saying: "Something like an affliction has appeared to me in the house."
The word - like an affliction, 'something' implied - seems to be an unusual choice. Why should the house-owner not bring a definitive report to the Cohen so that remedial work can begin at once?Rashi points out the first answer: it is the Cohen's appointed responsibility to pronounce the verdicts of 'clean' or 'unclean' after inspecting the markings in the house. The sages hypothesise ( Torat Kohanim, Tazria 1:9) that even if the Cohen should himself be unable to make the determination and need to be advised by a Torah scholar exactly how to read and interpret the physical signs, the procedure is that the scholar recommends that the Cohen should, in his opinion, say "this is clean" or "this is unclean", but that the legal change of purity status takes place only when the declaration leaves the Cohen's mouth. For the house-owner, however well educated or versed in the regulations of tzara'at, to make a determination is usurping the Cohen's authority. As Rashi says, "even if he is a Torah scholar, who knows that it is certainly an affliction, he should not render judgement with a definitive statement by saying, 'An affliction has appeared to me'; rather, 'Something like an affliction has appeared to me.'"
Both Rashi and theSforno look into the following verse to deduce a second answer to our question. Rashi comments that the Torah has pity by allowing removal of the contents before the judgement is announced, so that food, clothing, utensils and other personal possessions may be removed from the house before it is sealed and whole - house and contents - declared unclean. The Sforno adds, "and they shall empty the house before the Cohen comes; but he shall not come before this is done. In the interim, there will be time for the owners to pray and repent." The rabbis saw tzara'at as a supernatural sign of G-d's punishment for certain types of non-obvious sin; by allowing a window of time between the tzara'at appearing and the official declaration of impurity followed by the weeks of waiting and the cost of rebuilding and decoration or even the whole house being destroyed, the rabbis sensed G-d's mercy at work to prompt the guilty party to repent and be forgiven before sentence was carried out.
TheBaal HaTurim explains that a masoretic note, next to the phrase means that it appears twice in the Tanakh: here and in Jeremiah 31:2(3) - Adonai appeared to me from afar. Even though the latter is speaking of G-d foretelling a time of blessing when He would restore Israel: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness. Again I will rebuild you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! Again you shall take up your tambourines and go forth to the dances of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria ..." (Jeremiah 31:2-4(3-5), NASB), the Ba'al HaTurim's lesson is that G-d is warning the people in advance of what is going to happen so that they have time to prepare and be ready for what He is about to do.
Nechama Leibowitz shares a telling quote from Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi: "I have learned from my Masters that the wording is not associated with the definition of purity and impurity. Rather, it serves as a moral lesson, i.e., even in the event of certainty about an impurity, one should declare it as doubtful. Thus our Sages have stated 'Teach your tongue to say: I do not know' (b. Berakhot 4a)". Leibowitz then adds the pithy observation: "This is particularly relevant to the modern news media and their tendency to present doubtful information as an established fact." It is an almost universal human habit to repeat and, in the process often to embellish, stories and anecdotes that we hear. Peoples' lives and reputations can be ruined by gossip and rumours based either upon a single misunderstood or misquoted remark, or oftentimes nothing more that supposition or idle speculation; sometimes even deliberate fabrication. The rabbis likened gossip to murder or character assassination because it can kill a person's life and, often, the person themselves due to the stress and embarrassment caused. Believers should play no part in spreading or even receiving gossip, whether from a stranger or a friend. We should only repeat or report what is certain truth. As James wrote "And 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" (James 3:6, NASB), he picks up the same theme as the ancient rabbis who decided that tzara'at was the way in which G-d publicised and punished gossipers and slanderers. Yeshua spoke the same words when He said, "But what comes out of your mouth is actually coming from your heart, and that is what makes a person unclean" (Matthew 15:18, CJB).
Although tzara'at is held by the rabbis only to operate when the people of Israel are living in the land of Israel and in a theocracy where the priests administer the Torah, G-d is still just as concerned that damage is done today between people by habits of gossip. Yeshua warns believers that, "Moreover, I tell you this: on the Day of Judgment people will have to give account for every careless word they have spoken; for by your own words you will be acquitted, and by your own words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37, CJB). Neither is the context in which we speak any protection for He follows that up with the warning that "Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:3, NASB). In a verse that speaks both inwards and outwards, the Psalmist cries, "Deliver my soul, O L-RD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue" (Psalm 120:2, NASB); he needs to preserved against the effects of other peoples' lies and deceit, but he also needs to be protected from developing those same habits himself and being destroyed from within!
Given such a certain warning and exhortation, how should we govern our actions and conduct? All of us at some time or another have been guilty of, at best, careless or thoughtless speech; at worse, many of us have taken pleasure in passing on unflattering comments, criticism or reports of someone's behaviour or mistakes, possibly even originating them. We justify this either on the grounds that it is in the public interest that as wide a circulation as possible of that person's faults is made so that other people are not deceived or taken in by them, or because we are allowing the person to suffer from their own actions or words - often a thinly disguised form of revenge or getting one's own back. In the latter case, G-d simply forbids revenge, as Rav Sha'ul writes: "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of G-d, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the L-rd" (Romans 12:19, NASB); as to the former, Yeshua said, "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!" (Matthew 18:7, NASB). Even passing on opinion or unauthorised but true facts about people in prayer requests or prayer chains constitutes gossip. Once we become aware of our actions, we should make restitution where possible by apologising to the person concerned and repenting before G-d at the first opportunity.
Further Study: Psalm 34:5; 2 Peter 3:14
Application: Have you been caught out with this one? It is so easy that the enemy often uses it to trip us up and spoil our relationships with other people and with G-d. Think back and you'll most likely find at least one incident that you need to cover. Why not make a start right now and ask the Holy Spirit to give you a nudge before you open your mouth next time you're tempted?
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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