Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15) Teach Your Children Well

I remember a recurring anti-smoking TV commercial growing up; it aired from 1967-1982. It began with a scene of a man on a ladder painting the side of a house while a little boy (about 3 years old) looked on with a paint brush in hand; he was helping. The narrator said, “like father, like son.” There was a bouncy rhythm playing in the background but no more speaking until the end. The next scene was the father and son driving together in a convertible. When they stopped, the father hosed down the hubcaps on one side of the car while the son, once again, imitated his father. He squirted his squirt gun on the hubcaps of his side of the car and then playfully squirted his father. Then they took a walk together; when the father bent down to pick up a stone to toss it, his son did the same. The scenes were endearing; their relationship was ideal. The final scene shows the two of them sitting down to rest, leaning on a tree. The father takes out a cigarette, lights it up and as he puts down the pack, his son picks it up and the narrator says, “like father, like son; think about it.” This advertisement ran for 15 years due to its success. All of us know our actions have ramifications but that does not prevent us from doing things that teach a poor message.
This week’s Parsha discusses a phenomenon called tzarat. Although it is usually translated as “leprosy,” other than the fact that it is a painful skin ailment, its exact nature is unknown to us. (Being as it has not existed for thousands of years, we know nothing to which it can be compared.) It had two unique characteristics: It was not an airborne virus and it is the only affliction that the Torah attributes to a specific sin: lashon hara (derogatory speech). When a person besmirches someone else either to destroy the person’s reputation or simply because it’s amusing, it is called lashon hara.
I once knew a surgeon who had become addicted to pain killers for two months when he had been recovering from a painful surgery. When he saw what it was doing to him, his marriage and family, he went to rehab, recovered, and never again went back to those medications. For the next three years he voluntarily took monthly drug tests so that it would be clear to all that he was clean. A few years after that he went through a bitter divorce. His wife spoke to several people about his former addiction, which was now long behind him. For years, he had a wonderful reputation as a father and was even considered by some people to be an exceptional parent; two independent therapists corroborated this. Even though his former wife’s words were true-he once did have an addiction problem-there was no positive benefit in friends and others only peripherally connected to the family to have known about it. This type of toxic and non-constructive speech is called lashon hara.
Although there is no physical consequence when one speaks lashon hara today, but there are still many lessons to learn from the ancient skin ailment called tzarat. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; Frankfurt, Germany) points out an odd characteristic of tzarat ; it can afflict a one day old child. This is peculiar because the purpose of this skin condition is to awaken the one afflicted that his or her derogatory speech must stop. The process, part of which involved isolation, to rid oneself of this temporary disease was meant to make the person aware of the effects of his or her speech. How can an infant be held accountable for improper speech when (s)he has not yet uttered a single word?
Infants and small children are intimately affected by their parent’s personality. Rav Hirsch writes (13:59), “they are the tender shoots of humanity which should grow on the foundation and example of their parents’ lives to their calling of being likeness of G-d.” When father and mother see tzarat “on the forehead of their innocent little child, the most impressive terrible warning to the parents to examine themselves and consider what picture of life their social behavior will serve as an example to their child.” It is an intense and somber warning to parents, “for your child’s sake, better yourself. For the sake of your children, become good.”
Parents no longer have the benefit of seeing a physical sign of how destructive their behavior is to their children. When a father tells his 13-year-old to lie about her age so he can save money by buying a children’s ticket to an amusement park, he gives the message that it okay to lie if it is to save money. He sells his integrity for a savings of 3 to 5 dollars! When one of the children gets a phone call from a friend’s mother, who asks to speak to his mother, “tell her I’m not home” is a response that gives the message that it’s okay to lie when it’s inconvenient to tell the truth. Instead of instructing the child to say the truth, “I’m not available,” she lies. When parents speak negatively about guests when they leave and in general about other people for no reason other than to gossip, feel better about themselves, or simply to have fun, they too are tragically denying their children a role model that will allow them to become men and women of integrity; people who can be relied on not to cheat or throw their friends under the bus when it is convenient.
We would all be better parents if we saw the effect our seemingly nominal speech-lies, gossip, and other negative verbal utterances-has on those we love the most. Parents will go to any length to help their children; it behooves them to go make every effort to be the role model they need to be by guarding their tongues from saying things that will plant a faulty foundation for their children’s emotional and social wellbeing.
May we have the strength, and if we don’t we should ask G-d for the strength, to guard our tongues and not participate in negative conversations. We will be the biggest recipients of quality of life we can lead by doing so.
Good Shabbos