Nonetheless the rabbis urged us to view the portion on a moral level, not just as rules about the treatment of leprosy but as a code of laws about how to control our tongues.
M’tzora, a leper, was taken as a hint of motzi ra, a slanderer, one who utters evil talk. How are the two subjects to be linked? By regarding leprosy as the punishment for slander. Use your tongue wrongly, thus went the reasoning, and your body will suffer. You will feel as though you don’t want to live. The rabbinic sages realised this when they put into God’s mouth the words, “The slanderer and I cannot live in the same world”.
We can even go further and say that when linguistic leprosy abounds, the world itself cannot live, because no-one can be trusted and civilisation will crumble.
So how do we handle the scourge of evil talk? On every level we have to obey the great words, N’tzor l’shon’cha me-ra – “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile” (Psalm 34:14).
The most famous teacher of sh’mirat halashon, “guarding one’s tongue”, was the Chafetz Chayyim, who was approached by a young rabbi with the complaint, “My sermons seem to be a waste of time: no-one takes any notice of what I say!”
The Chafetz Chayyim replied, “But when they are listening to your sermons, at least they are not gossiping or spreading rumours. That is an achievement in itself!”