Between the Lines—Tazria/M'tzora

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Leviticus Rabbah 16:2

זאת תהיה תורת המצורע הה״ד (תהלים לד) מי האיש החפץ חיים מעשה ברוכל אחד שהיה מחזיר בעיירות שהיו סמוכות לציפורי והיה מכריז ואומר מאן בעי למזבן סם חיים אודקין עליה ר׳ ינאי הוה יתיב ופשט בתורקליניה שמעיה דמכריז מאן בעי סם חיים א״ל תא סק להכא זבון לי א״ל לאו אנת צריך ליה ולא דכוותך אטרח עליה סליק לגביה הוציא לו ספר תהלים הראה לו פסוק מי האיש החפץ חיים מה כתיב בתריה נצור לשונך מרע סור מרע ועשה טוב א״ר ינאי אף שלמה מכריז ואומר (משלי כא) שומר פיו ולשונו שומר מצרות נפשו א״ר ינאי כל ימי הייתי קורא הפסוק הזה ולא הייתי יודע היכן הוא פשוט עד שבא רוכל זה והודיעו מי האיש החפץ חיים לפיכך משה מזהיר את ישראל ואומר להם זאת תהיה תורת המצורע תורת המוציא שם רע

This shall be the law of the leper . . . (Lev. 14:2). There is an allusion to this in the verse, Who is the man eager for life? (Ps. 34:13). [One learns this from] the case of the peddler who used to go around the towns adjacent to Tzippori and cry out, "Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?" Great crowds would gather around him.

R. Yannai was sitting and learning Torah in his room and heard him calling out, "Who desires the elixir of life?" He said to him, "Come here, and sell it to me." The peddler said, "Neither you nor people like you require it." R. Yannai pressed him, so the peddler went up to him and took out the book of Psalms, showing him the verse, Who is the man eager for life? What is written [immediately] thereafter? Guard your tongue from evil . . . Shun evil and do good . . . (Ps. 34:14-15).

R. Yannai said, "[King] Solomon, too, proclaims, If one guards his mouth, his tongue keeps him from trouble (mi-tzarot)" (Prov. 21:23). R. Yannai continued, "All my life I have read this verse but did not know how it was to be explained, until this peddler came and made it clear." Who is the man eager for life? . . . Guard (ne'tzor) your tongue from evil . . .

For this reason, Moses warned Israel, saying to them, This shall be the law of the leper (m'tzora), i.e., the law relating to one who slanders another (ha-motzi' shem rah).

What is the recipe for living a good, healthy life? According to this midrash, the answer is surprisingly yet deceptively simple: silence.

A peddler helps Rabbi Yannai discover new wisdom from verses he had always known. Drawing upon the shared letter pair tzadi-resh in three unrelated words, R. Yannai connects the "trouble" of an unguarded tongue with leprosy. In fact, his playfully serious interpretation depends on a rereading of the verse (as translated above) from Proverbs as a cause-and-effect statement rather than as a description. The result is another famous wordplay in which the title of this week's Torah portion, M'tzora, becomes an abbreviation for a phrase depicting malicious gossip.

R. Yannai implicates one of the pitfalls of our highly verbal tradition and culture, even for sacred Torah study. As Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught in Pirkei Avot 1:18, "All my life, I grew up among the Sages but discovered nothing more becoming a person than silence . . . excess in speech leads to sin."

What if we took these insights seriously, challenging ourselves to limit our communication with others in favor of quiet reflection and carefully chosen words? In a time of information overload and myriad abuses of language, we must become "eager for life" so that our words will express wisdom and again bring honor, not danger, to our public discourse.