When you hear that someone has lung cancer, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I am embarrassed to admit it, but my mind leaps to, “Were they a smoker?” It is natural for us to want to “blame the victim.” I think that assigning blame is a self-defense mechanism. If we can identify the cause of the illness and we can avoid that behavior, then we hope we can protect ourselves from the same fate.
This week’s Torah portion, combining Tazria and Metzorah, describes various skin afflictions that might erupt on our bodies. It is the job of the priest to examine the individual closely and monitor their healing. The person who is afflicted remains in isolation until the priest performs a ritual purification, at which time they are able to leave quarantine and re-enter the community.
The rabbis struggled to understand why someone would suffer with tzaraat, the name the Torah gives to this mysterious affliction. And the rabbis also noticed that tzaraat sounds similar to motzi shem ra, that is, to give someone a bad name. So, they connected the two, and determined that diseases of the skin must somehow be a punishment for gossip, for speaking negatively of others. (BT Arachin 15b)
Fortunately we have transcended the notion of blaming the victim for ailments. Yet, the confluence of these two ideas invites us to reflect on how we use words. We know the power of a word. In fact, in Hebrew, a word for a word is a davar, a “thing.” Its presence and impact is tangible. A kind, caring word can be a blessing. A hurtful word can break our hearts and stay with us for a lifetime.
Pirke Avot (5:7) speaks of how a wise person uses words. The text offers seven teachings- refraining from speaking in the presence of someone who knows more than we do, not giving a hasty response, being thoughtful in our questions and responding to inquiries correctly, sharing thoughts in a logical sequence, and admitting when we don’t know or are unaware of a situation. And, finally, a wise person does not interrupt.
In my native culture of Brooklyn, NY, interrupting was a way of life. It was the only way to be heard. If you didn’t interrupt, it was impossible to get a word in. So imagine my shock when I moved to Arizona and discovered that people found me to be rude when I interrupted. I thought I was demonstrating my enthusiastic participation in the conversation.
So which is it? Is interrupting the sign of a conversational boor or an excited listener? Turns out, according to Deborah Tannen, “’high involvement cooperative overlapping’ is actually a characteristic of Jewish conversational style” (jweekly.com/2000/05/12/interrupters-linguist-says-it-s-jewish-way). As a professor of linguistics, her research shows that speaking quickly and loudly and, yes, interrupting, are specific characteristics associated with Jews, especially those of Eastern European origin, and especially those from New York.
Despite her findings, perhaps we need to develop some sensitivity to the fact that this conversational style may not be viewed favorably in a broader context. More listening and less interrupting is a respectful way to demonstrate interest and to express humility by not hijacking the conversation and stealing the limelight. Elizabeth Gilbert shares this lesson, “. . . no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this: “I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.” And I can’t find another way to see that than: ”I believe that I am more important than you.” And that must end.” Indeed.
Once the metzora is healed, the priest, as part of the purification ritual, anoints the thumb, the ear, and the big toe. Why these parts of the body? The thumb, as a reminder of the holy work of which our hands are capable. The big toe, an indication that we need to move in the right direction and express our values wherever we go. And the ear? A symbol of the need to listen more and talk less. To listen with true intention and without interruption.
While we no longer believe that inappropriate speech will result in our skin breaking out in illness, reading Parshat Tazriah-Metzorah is, nevertheless, a good time for us to evaluate how we use our words, and how we can make our words a source of blessing in a world where listening deeply is an endangered value.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).