I have a confession to make. I make mistakes. For example, yesterday, I made one with a student. We talked, I admitted the error, apologized for it and we were able to move on. I make mistakes often and I while I am grateful for being called on them, for I can’t improve if I am not, it still stings when it happens for the mistakes indicate I have further to go to reach that impossible goal of perfection. I know that goal is unattainable, I still must strive, as we all must, to reach it.
This week we read the double portion of Tazria – Metzora. If any two parshiyot in the Torah appear, at least on the surface, to provide any inspiration it is these two. The main theme of both is purity and impurity and the disease known as Tzaraat, a condition manifested by snow white patches on the skin with white hairs protruding out from the patch. There were various shades of the whiteness which gave the affected skin the appearance of being deeper than the healthy skin around it.
A Metzora was an individual afflicted with Tzaraat. Tzaraat appeared as a physical malady on the body however Jewish tradition holds that it was the result of a spiritual degradation of the individual, the result of anti-social behavior – usually gossip or slander. In fact, the rabbis say the Hebrew word Metzora is a combination of two Hebrew words that mean “one who spreads slander.” The person diagnosed by the Kohain with Tzaraat was quarantined outside the camp for a period of time during which it was hoped the person would reflect on their behavior and begin the work to improve, to do Teshuva. The Metzora was one who made a mistake and process of purification as described by the Torah was the process to enable that person to improve.
People make mistakes and it is right and proper to tell one when a mistake as been made for as I mentioned earlier we can’t correct the mistakes unless we know about them. In fact the Torah does mandate rebuke of another when necessary, the question is how should it be done? How do we give criticism in a way that truly is constructive and will result is building a person up? This is something I know I haven’t yet figured out, for I know that if done the wrong way, the results can be worse than the mistake itself. I have been criticized for being too nice or too easy when perhaps I shouldn't. Those criticisms are correct. I am still working on that balance.
(By the way, I acknowledge there are really bad things people do. I am not referring to those here.)
Yet at the same time we also need to realize that we do good things as well and it is the good things that people do that needs nurturing, encouragement and emphasis.
The wise King Shlomo wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in (power) of the tongue.” Parshat Metzora teaches us that our words have impact; they have the power to destroy and the power to build. May we focus on the positive, make we focus on the good, for perhaps in doing so the mistakes will seem less egregious. (I should be looking in the mirror as I write this – I am my own worst critic). Imagine the community we can create.
We are good people, we do good things.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger