Sermon for Scout Shabbat – March 28, 2014

It is a joy to once again welcome the members of Troop 97 and their families. This annual Scout Shabbat solidifies the ties that bind Troop 97 to Oheb Shalom. Our congregation has sponsored a scout troop for almost a hundred years, starting with the predecessor to Troop 97 and continuing, since the 1940s, with Troop 97 itself. The scouts perform many valuable services to our congregation and community, including working at the recent Purim carnival and setting up chairs in the Blaustein Auditorium for the High Holydays. Troop 97 also has an enviable record of creating Eagle Scouts. There is rarely a year that goes by without one of the scouts ascending to the rarified level of Eagle Scout. To say that we are proud of our scouts is an understatement.
Our Torah portion for this week is Tazria, from the Book of Leviticus. This portion, and its twin, Metsora, are usually read as a double portion. This being a leap year, however, we separate the two. Woe to the bar mitzvah who has to chant from these portions which deal with skin diseases, bodily fluxes, house mold, and all manners of ritual impurities. These portions actually tell us a great deal about our ancestor’s sense of their world, of how they distinguished between sacred and profane, life and death. We believed that God created boundaries that could be crossed only at our peril. If we did transgress one of them, we became ritually impure and had to go through purification ceremonies to re-enter the boundary and hence, the community. Since this thought world was disassembled when the Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, these laws became anachronistic. The only remnant of them is the use of the mikvah and handwashing when we enter a home immediately following a funeral.
The rabbis who lived after this period had to re-interpret these rules in order to make them relevant to their time. The rabbis associated these most grave skin diseases with the character damage that ensues from motsi shem ra, the mis-use of language, a deliberate word play on Metsora. The rabbis believed that one who engaged in verbal abuse placed himself outside the boundary of the community, just as did the one who contracted a terrible skin disease and was ritually impure.
I spoke to a woman last night who moved to Baltimore five years ago. She is happy here and well adjusted to our community. She said the biggest shock of moving here was how much people talked about one another. She could not get over the amount of gossip in which we engage. Jewish law is obsessive on the subject of the improper usage of language. “It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). We may not even speak negatively about people regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara). Even idle gossip is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.” The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.” The great moralist, the Chofetz Chaim, cautioned that we should not even engage in lashon hara about ourselves. We are not allowed to run ourselves down, for when we are overly critical we are slighting God, our Creator, who made us in His image and placed a divine spark within our souls. To disparage ourselves is to disparage the Godliness that is within us.
In this day of instant communication, the mis-use of language is even more serious than it was in earlier times, when malicious talk was spread person to person. Now, with Twitter, Instagram, and Face Book, one can ruin a person’s reputation literally in an instant. The consequences of this have become horrific, as young people misuse on line communication to bully and embarrass others. This has led to numerous suicides of adolescents who cannot deal with the public shame of motsi shem ra. So tonight, my young friends, I caution you to think before you speak, to fashion a narrow filter between your brain and your mouth, and to reflect very carefully before you write anything that will be seen by other people. Not only do your words come back to haunt you, but you may, even unwittingly, embarrass someone so profoundly that the consequences will be irreversible.
As we begin to chant the Tefila, we say “Adonai s’fatai tiftach u’fi yagid tehelatecha,”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Jewish Week.

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