This week's parsha
Sickness stalked the streets of Vilna in 1848; an epidemic had struck, and dozens of townsfolk had succumbed. Every house was filled with the dead and dying. Depression and despair were rampant.
In times of sickness and sorrow, the mind craves answers. People want to know why things are going so spectacularly wrong, and if there is anything they can do to change the situation. People look for someone to blame.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great ethicist and scholar, was approached by a congregant with grave accusations against the family of one of the leading citizens of the town. The informer was privy to certain distasteful details about a respected family, and he was determined to share his knowledge with the rabbi.
“After all,” he argued, “who knows if the plague isn’t divine retribution for their sins. Perhaps if they can be made to repent, many lives might be saved.”
Rabbi Yisroel refused to listen. “It’s too easy to point the finger,” he said, “blaming everyone else for the tragedies and hardships of life. But tattling and negativity is not the Jewish way. Far better to direct our efforts towards self-improvement and correcting one’s own conduct than to focus on the failing of others.”
We learn in this week’s Torah reading about the metzora: During Temple times, a man or woman who had gossiped or spoken negatively about others would often develop symptoms of tzaraat -- a leprous-like condition that renders the sinner ritually impure. As part of the purification process, the metzora would be exiled from home for a few weeks and forced to live alone, outside the city borders, until the symptoms dissipated.
Rabbi Yisroel continued to explain that the sin of lashon hara, speaking negatively about others, is not necessarily the same as lying. Gossiping is evil, and honesty is no defense. You could be saying the unvarnished, absolute truth, but it’s still a sin. The metzora is sent to solitary confinement not just to wait for his tzaraat to cure, but to reflect on the lack of judgment that caused the sickness in the first place.
Before rushing to blame others or to indict someone else, do an honest analysis of your own behavior. Spend a few weeks in the company of your own thoughts, and you may very well come to realize that the cause of your troubles is yourself.