Parashat Tazriah: Publicizing a Sin

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R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch succinctly described Tzara’at as a physical manifestation of a spiritual affliction. Whether it affected the home, clothing or body, it was a clear and visual sign that a spiritual cleansing was required – a sin, or sins, had been committed. Sometimes the affliction could be cured quickly, and sometimes the afflicted person would be required to live outside the camp for a certain period of time to become pure again.

But what seems a little fishy is that God would create a system reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Why create a marker that allows the whole neighborhood to know that someone has sinned? We have an obligation a rebuke a sinner, but not to publicize the sins! Couldn’t a system be devised that would be very clear and obvious to the offender, but not result in full-disclosure to other people? Why are we adding potential embarrassment of the sinner to an already bad situation?

To better understand why, we can look in the Gemara in Masechet Arachin that outlines seven different sins that could be the cause for Tzara’at: Lashon Hara, Murder, Swearing Falsely, Illicit Relations, Pride, Theft and Miserliness. The common denominator among all of these is an abuse or neglect of our obligations to one another as human beings.

A person’s Kavod and privacy is taken into consideration for most mitzvoth between a person and God, but when it comes to someone who has mistreated their fellow human being, it must be stopped swiftly and effectively. Even if this might result in the embarrassment of the offender, the Tzara’at is in place to stop the offense and set the sinner on the path to Teshuvah. The risk is too great that others in the community will fall victim to the offender’s hurtful ways.

As we read through this parashah full of elaborate descriptions for dealing with Tzara’at, let’s think about why so much attention is devoted to this one halacha, and take the extra time to be considerate to one another’s feelings and sensitivities.

This Dvar Torah was written for the Mt Sinai Jewish Center Kesher Newsletter.

Parashat Shoftim – False Prophecy

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What does it take to be trustworthy? What does the word even mean? According the Boy Scouts of America (my alma mater?), being trustworthy means telling the truth, being honest, keeping promises and being dependable.

This week’s Torah portion explains the laws of how to deal with a false prophet. If a person claims to be speaking on behalf of God, but what they say will happen does not happen, we can be confident that he or she was not a real prophet.

It seems like a very simple concept. If someone claims to have absolute insider information about what’s going to happen, and they turn out to be wrong, there are only two possibilities. They were either misleading people intentionally, or they were misled themselves. These are clearly not people that we would want to take advice from.

So what was the point of having this section on false prophets? I guess it’s good to know what the punishment is (us Yekke, type-A, Jews like to have things nice and orderly), but aside from that it’s an obvious rule.

I think the Torah is reminding us of the power and value of our words and reputations. When I tell someone that I can be depended on to make something happen, or that the information I’m telling them is reliable, I am putting a lot at stake. Speaking rashly, or without thinking, I can lose my credibility with friends, family, colleagues and strangers very quickly.

In the case of the Bible’s false prophet, the punishment is death (damn!). Today our lives aren’t on the line, but our reputations are still extremely valuable. When we act with integrity, we build value for ourselves. When we become reckless and unreliable, we send ourselves down the self-destructive path of the false prophet.

We have the power to create our personal value, but we can also diminish that value very quickly.