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Parshas Metzorah: Behavioral Principles and Fitting Punishments

After spending a large portion of last week’s Parsha, Tazria, discussing how to identify Tzoraas, this week we read about the fate of the Metzorah, the person who was afflicted. The Metzorah is commanded to bring a specific, unique Karban upon his return to the camp, a sacrifice of two birds. Rashi, (Vayikra 14:4), wondering why the Metzorah’s sacrifice is atypical for a sin offering, explains that the Metzorah brings birds for his Karban Chatas because he spoke Lashon Hara, gossip, and birds twitter like gossipers. According to most sources, speaking Lashon Hara is the primary sin for which a person gets Tzoraas. Rashi’s comment underscores the oft-cited concept of Midah K’Neged Midah, G-d’s tendency to respond to our actions in accordance with the deeds we have done. Because the Metzorah spoke Lashon Hara, and twittered (or tweeted) like the birds, the sinner’s repentance process includes a symbol and reminder of his sin. Why is it crucial for the Metzorah to be thus reminded? Furthermore, the Metzorah has suffered a lot already; he has been afflicted with a (hideous, perhaps uncomfortable) skin disease, and endured the lonely, embarrassing, potentially dangerous week of living outside the camp, and has extended his stay past those seven days if his Tzoraas did not disappear in the interim. Once he is ready to return to the camp, do we really need to remind him of what he did to deserve all this? The answer, of course, is yes.

The idea of Midah K’Neged Midah is not just that a person’s punishment should fit the crime he has committed; it is also for the purpose of the person’s growth that the punishment is thus meted out. In old school behavior therapy, pioneered by John Watson and others, learning is regarded as the most important factor contributing to behavior change. If a person (or animal, in true behavior theory) experiences an opportunity to learn, to create new associations, then that is the best predictor of behavior change. If I (or the rat, as it were) receive a food pellet every time I pull one lever, but receive an electric shock every time a pull on another lever, I will eventually learn to associate one lever with pleasure and one with pain; if I am not a masochist, I will decrease my behavior of pulling the shocking lever and increase my behavior of pulling the pellet-providing one.

Once again, Hashem’s wisdom is infinite and predates – and outstrips – that of Watson, Skinner, and all the rest of those fathers of modern behavior therapy. The Metzorah’s experience, from his Tzoraas to the requirement of leaving the camp, to the bringing of the two birds at the end of the ordeal, teaches the Metzorah the lessons he needs in order to provide the opportunity to change his behavior for the future. When we speak ill of another person, we isolate and target them, their flaws, their idiosyncrasies, and we call excess negative attention to them. In order to truly internalize the idea that Lashon Hara is bad and to inoculate himself against further evil speech, the Metzorah must experience what it feels like to be the center of negative, unpleasant attention. When he is afflicted with Tzoraas, everyone can see the external blemish on his skin; he cannot hide it. And if he does, it will spread. This visible blemish, this tangible proof of his iniquity also serves to teach the Metzorah what it is like to have negative attention drawn to oneself; it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Like the lever that causes an electric shock, the Metzorah learns to associate his actions with an unpleasant feeling, one he does not want to feel again. But learning does not happen overnight, or even after one interaction with the electric-shock-lever. Therefore, the Tzoraas itself is not enough. The Metzorah must leave the camp, be ostracized, alienated, made to feel separate, apart, the same way that it can be assumed the subject of his Lashon Hara was made to feel. And he remains there for 7 days, because every day, every minute, every hour, is another unpleasant, lonely reminder of the loneliness and discomfort and shame he has caused another to feel. These ill feelings have punished, in true behavioral terms, the behavior of gossip.

Furthermore, the beauty and wisdom of God’s Torah is that unlike the association between a lever, a neutral object, and the punishing response of an electric shock, God’s Midah K’neged Midah is not random; it is precise. The idea is not that the Metzorah should have a negative experience so that he is less likely to sin, but that the negative experience should itself discourage the sin through the mechanism of perspective taking, of understanding what his sin created and actualized in the world. The Metzorah’s actions caused disconnection and embarrassment; this is why his new learning for behavior change must include a parroted feeling. The Metzorah is sent outside the camp, and is able to contemplate what it feels like to be separate, to be “othered;” in that space, he can begin to understand what it might feel like for the person about whom he spoke negatively. Thus enlightened, he returns to the camp; but we do not rely solely on his experience over the last week to preserve his new sense of good will. Rather, we specifically ask him to bring two birds because now that the external reminders of the Tzoraas and forced isolation are removed, we want to add one more reinforcement to his learning to ensure that he makes the necessary connections so he does not sin again.

These principles can be extremely helpful when disciplining ourselves, our students, our children, or whenever other people are exhibiting behaviors we’d like them to change. When a child misbehaves, it is crucial that we not react in accordance with our own emotions (e.g. I am angry that you misbehaved because I feel less in control, therefore I will yet at you and revoke privileges to make myself feel better and more in control). Rather, the punishments we mete out are most effective when they fit the crime, not only because they are perceived as “fair,” but because this is how we maximize learning. If a teen misses curfew, taking away her phone will not teach her anything about the importance of time, safety, or following rules, even if it makes her parents feel temporarily powerful. If she is forced to spend a desirable Sunday afternoon hour helping her siblings or around the house, however, she learns from the discomfort of feeling like her time is being wasted that time is something to respect. If her parents give her time when she needs it, she further learns that it feels good when your time is respected. Both of these forms of learning help to increase the likelihood that she will comply with curfew next time.

When meting out punishments or thinking about changing behaviors, whether our own or others’, consider three questions before taking action:

  1. What behavior do I want to change (increase or decrease)?

  2. What learning does this person require in order to be more likely to change this behavior?

  3. How can I provide a fitting disciplinary action that will teach this person in a way that makes it more likely for them to exhibit the desired behaviors?

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