I promised myself I wasn’t going to go there, wasn’t going to read or think or write about the “slap heard ’round the world” at Sunday night’s Oscars. I was blissfully unaware of the whole thing having sworn off the self-congratulatory and narcissistic displays of all the awards shows several years ago. However, I woke up Monday morning and the headlines were everywhere. The clips of the event flooded the internet. It was the “hot story” of the day. The more I thought about it, the more I saw a teaching opportunity to tie in to this week’s parashah.
In Parashah Tazria we learn all about tzaraat, how to identify it, the prescription for ridding one’s skin of the condition, and what to do for purification. Again, the translation says it is leprosy. It is not. It is not a medical condition of any sort, but a spiritual one and not something that we see anymore. Not sure what that means. Either we’ve stopped doing that which causes it or we all do it so much that it’s no longer a defining factor. The latter is more likely than the former.
The sages teach that tzaraat is a condition appearing when one commits certain sins. The Talmud lists seven reasons one might be afflicted by it: gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft, and envy. Of course, gossip or “lashon hara,” literally “evil talk,” is the most common offense associated with tzaraat. If you speak ill of another, even if it’s true, you are guilty of lashon hara.
If we look at the spectacle that is the Oscars, what’s the likelihood that any of the well-dressed folks there might be stricken with tzaraat if they were transported back to Moses’ time? I’m guessing pretty good. There is likely enough arrogance and envy in the room to cause plenty of issues. There is the publicized fact that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have an “open” marriage which means forbidden sexual relationships are allowed by each for the other. It was the lashon hara that kicked off the ridiculous display on the stage that is the most common. Chris Rock made a joke about Jada’s bald head (the result of a medical condition called alopecia). Will Smith laughed until he saw his wife shooting daggers at him with her eyes. Then he strode up onto the stage and slapped Chris Rock. When Smith sat down and Rock tried to smooth it over with another joke, Smith shouted loudly, expletives included, that Rock should stop talking about his wife.
Now whether you think the slap was real or staged—and there are many who think it was—there is enough ugliness in all of this to make it front page news as well as the most searched item on Google and YouTube. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a clip of it. Memes and jokes abound. And the analysis…my goodness, you’d think there wasn’t anything happening in Ukraine tipping us toward World War III, that our President hadn’t said anything that was being construed or misconstrued about another world leader, that inflation wasn’t an issue in our country or gas prices weren’t through the roof or there was a chance that the very scary virus was going to make a comeback.
Short of sending the whole lot of them to a priest for diagnosis, treatment, and assignment of purification offerings (none of which is available in this day and age), what can we learn from this? First of all, we learn that it’s hard to recognize your own failings. The reason that metzora, people suffering from what appeared to be tzaraat, were sent to the priests for diagnosis was so the priest could show them the physical manifestation of their spiritual condition. Yes, the priest looked for all the signs and symptoms of the physical condition, but their duty was to also help the person recognize the sin in themselves that caused it. It’s hard to see your own failings, and sometimes you need help.
While you can’t see your own flaws, it’s quite easy to see them in others. Thus, we look at someone else and critically determine all their faults while our own remain a mystery to us. A proverb cited in the Mishna says, “Your eyes can see what is in front of you, and your eyelashes should see what’s facing you.” In other words, you see minor faults in another, but can barely see a major flaw in yourself. In fact, we often are most critical of the failings of others because we ourselves suffer the same malady.
There were failings galore on Sunday night: a joke that hit too close to home and an inappropriate and outsized response to the joke, followed by a standing ovation by the crowd for the man whose response made it all such a spectacle. Can you spell “hypocritical”?
I’m a great fan of the Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers and there is a lesson there about how to look at others. “Joshua ben Perahiah taught: Select a master-teacher for yourself; acquire a colleague for study; when you assess people, tip the balance in their favor.” (1:6).
That last phrase is the one on which we should focus. We are constantly assessing others. That person is overweight. That one is rude. Another is unkempt. A colleague or friend is uneducated, immoral, foolish, too political, not political enough, too religious, irreligious…the list goes on and on. We look around and judge and judge and judge others without properly looking at ourselves. What are our failings? When have we behaved badly, said the unkind word, perhaps even incited violence? Can we not “tip the balance in their favor” and judge others mercifully and with a compassionate eye?
The priests helped the metzora identify what was wrong and put it right. How blessed are we if we can acquire a friend who can be that priest to us, who can gently and lovingly hold the mirror up to ourselves so we can see our own flaws more clearly. We are gossips or arrogant or envious. Again from Pirkei Avot: “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person and do not underrate the importance of any thing—for there is no person who does not have his or her hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” (4:3). That goes for others and that goes for us.
May we learn lessons of life not just from the good around us, but also from the bad, the inappropriate, and the evil around us. Spare us from arrogance about who we are, envy of those we judge as better, and lashon hara, that which will kill not only the spirit of others, but our own. Lessons from the Oscars. Who would’ve thought?