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D'var Torah: Slander

'If a person has on the skin of his flesh, a se'at or a sapachat, or a baheret; or there be a tzara’at affliction on the skin of his flesh, he should be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests'. (Vayikra 13:1)

The various Hebrew words above all refer to spiritual maladies, which are defined in the Mishna, and are not leprosy. What is the cause of the tzara’at affliction?

Tzara’at is from the same verbal root as Metzora, the name of next week’s Sidra (Torah Reading. The Talmud (Arachin 15b) notes that Metzora is a shortened form of ‘motzi shem ra’ – one who spreads slander.

The Talmud continues that a slanderer is compared to somebody who denies the essence of Judaism, and as such, cannot ‘dwell’ with God in the world. According to the students of the sage Rabbi Yishmael, a slanderer magnifies his other sins to the level of cardinal sins by slandering. This requires clarification. Why is the sin of slander deemed so severe that it merits such drastic comparisons? We will present an approach to address this important and extensive topic.

The Slonimer Rebbe, a 20th century Chasidic leader, investigates these issues in his work ‘Netivot Shalom’. The Rebbe cites the continuation of the Talmudic passage likening a slanderer to a snake, which bites even though it receives no benefit from its bite. Such malicious harm is amongst the worst that a person can commit, and therefore also causes great harm to the sinner him or herself.

But why could God not ‘dwell’ with such a person. God calls us His children, and as a father, cannot tolerate slander being spoken about his family, or such strife between them. The Rebbe continues that this is also why a slanderer is described as defying the essence of Judaism, since he ignores one of the fundamentals of Judaism – that God relates to us like a father to children.

Since a parent is often more zealous for their child than for themselves, God relates more harshly to slander between humans, than to sins which are directly between humans and God. This fits in with the Talmud’s discussion of why somebody afflicted with tzara’at is isolated from the camp, serving as a stark warning of the potential effects of unacceptable social behaviour.

This also helps us understand the Midrashic statement in the name of Rabbi Akiva, (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) that the verse mandating ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18) is a central principle of the Torah.

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