The opening section of Parashat Metzora outlines the procedure to be undergone by somebody who had been stricken with the tzara’at skin infection and was then cured, for him to regain his status of ritual purity. The Torah instructs (14:9) that on the seventh day of the process, the metzora (person who had been stricken with tzara’at) must remove all the hair on his head and on his entire body.
The Ben Ish Chai offers an explanation for the significance of this aspect of the metzora’s purification process based on the famous association drawn by Chazal between tzara’at and the sin of lashon ha-ra – negative speech about one’s fellow (Arakhin 16a). The root cause of gossip and talebearing, very often, is jealousy and resentment, the feeling that one’s fellow somehow took that which rightfully belonged to him, or has achieved something which he did not deserve. The Ben Ish Chai suggests that hair serves as an appropriate symbol of this mistaken perception, as thousands of strands of hair blend together and appear to occupy one another’s space. In truth, however, each hair grows from a single follicle, and no strand of hair infringes upon the territory of any other. The same is true, the Ben Ish Chai writes, of everything we have in life. While it may outwardly appear that we compete and struggle with one another, wrestling from our fellow that which he would otherwise be able to take for himself, in truth, we all receive everything we have from our own unique pipeline of divine blessing. Every individual has his or her own independent “follicle,” in the sense that God provides all people with precisely what they need and deserve, without anybody ever infringing upon the lot of anybody else.
We might apply this symbolic interpretation in a slightly different manner. Communal life resembles hair in the sense that community members live together and are, to one extent or another, “entangled” in each other’s lives. Living as part of a community necessarily requires surrendering some degree of privacy, as by definition, members share a portion of their lives with one another. The gossiper takes this “hair” phenomenon to an extreme, viewing all the individual “strands” as completely “entangled” to the point where nobody’s private affairs need to remain private. For the gossiper, community members surrender their private domain altogether, and each person’s life completely blends with everybody else’s. But when the metzora’s hair is removed, he reveals that each hair grows from its own independent source. Although the hair outwardly mixes and blends with all the others, in truth, it stands on its own. The message being conveyed is that even as people live together and join to form a vibrant community, they each retain their individual identity, and are thus entitled to privacy. Even as we work together, we remain separate and apart as private individuals. The gossiper is thus shown that the community experience does not need to, and must never, erase personal boundaries, that even as people join together to form close-knit groups, they must each be given his or her personal space that others may not violate.