D’Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

Over the past weeks and months, many of us have been having the same conversation with our friends and family, peers and colleagues, on social media, and beyond: we’ve witnessed a horrific rise of antisemitism that leaves us feeling vulnerable and afraid. We’re hyper focused on the use of words, often weapons of hate. Parashat Tazria reminds us to be deliberate with our words and ensure they are used with care.

The Biblical conversation in Tazria is murky and gross, but the message is relevant and appropriate. We read about tzara’at, a term that describes a variety of skin ailments, but is also applicable to unusual changes in the appearance of fabrics:

“When an eruptive affection occurs in a cloth or wool or linen fabric, in the warp or in the woof of the linen or the wool or in a skin or in anything made of skin… it shall be shown to the priest; and the priest after examining the affection, shall isolate the affected article for seven days” (Leviticus 13:47-48, 50).

It was one of the priest’s tasks to observe tzara’at, determine its authenticity, and measure when one is healed. There was a great fear of tzara’at becoming contagious and spreading. Like this mysterious disease, malicious words can spread in unintended directions.

The midrashic collection Sifra suggests: “The indispensable duty of the priest was to speak the words, ‘You are clean’ or ‘You are unclean.’          If the priest was ignorant, he might be guided in his diagnosis by an informed layman, but it was he who had to speak the official formula.”

Today, we don’t speak so much about cleanliness or purity. But it’s powerful to note the importance of the priest’s words in guiding the community and fostering a healthy society. The definitive voice of the priest was a trustworthy source in troubled times. We are each empowered to serve like the ancient priests as we recognize our leadership capabilities and stand together as a strong voice for what is just, compassionate, and holy. We use our words for good, we don’t shy away when we hear words used inappropriately.

In various spaces, we are often called to take note of the words used to describe Jewish people, and all minority groups. In recent months we have felt targeted and unsafe. On social media, in demonstrations, on the news, in day-to-day conversations, we have witnessed a proliferation of antisemitism which is sometimes explicit, but often less obvious. Words have been used to tear people down and encourage harm instead of building each other up. This does not mean that we cannot criticize Israel with love as we often do, but it does mean that we are called to be grounded in facts and principles. We can help our neighbours unpack what they hear too.

Our world is polarized. It is easy to adopt the framework of someone being either with me or against me. But there is a vast ocean in between. Rather than writing off vast swaths of people, we can commit to navigating a path of compromise. This entails very careful use of our words. It does not mean giving up on our viewpoints or priorities, it rather means maintaining them while remaining open to new paths forward. Notably, our words can evolve.

When words, thoughts, or viewpoints begin to get out of control, we must recognize the potential danger. Then we have a responsibility to re-calibrate, call for a pause, take account of those closest to the pain and trauma, and work to foster shalom. We can use our words as tools to create, build connection, and stand for justice. Let’s make sure our voices are attuned to goodness, caution, and intentionality.