The main topic addressed in this week’s Parsha is a condition called
tzarat. Although it is generally translated as “leprosy,” other than the fact that it is a painful skin ailment, its exact nature is unknown to us and has not existed for thousands of years. It was not an airborne virus and it is the only affliction that the Torah attributes to a specific sin: lashon hara (unwarranted derogatory speech).
If a person will have (a blemish)on his skin…and it will become a tzarat affliction, he shall be brought to…the Kohanim. The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh; if hair in the affliction has changed to white, and its appearance deeper than the skin of the flesh- it is a tzarat affliction. (13:1-2)
Being as tzarat afflicted a person because of speaking lashon hara, it behooves us to discuss the power of negative speech-even if it is true. The literal translation of the Hebrew words lashon hara is “evil language.” We need to remind ourselves that evil is not just mass murder, child trafficking, or abusing helpless people; opportunities to do evil exist every day in our lives. Interestingly, the Torah calls “evil language” anything negative, even if it’s true. We grew up hearing that sticks and stones can break bones, but names cannot harm. In Jewish consciousness, speech is a gift unique to humans. When we misuse it, we can destroy lives even though no one intended to.
The Talmud says that three lives are potentially destroyed when lashon hara is spoken; 1) the person speaking, 2) the person spoken about and 3) the person spoken to. Although one briefly becomes the center of attention when sharing an exciting piece of gossip, ultimately people will stop trusting you because they will think, “I wonder what s/he says about me when I’m not around.” People won’t trust you and therefore you are ultimately destroying your ability to have meaningful friendships.
The second person you destroy is the one about whom you are speaking. The person under discussion is, of course, being “killed” in the minds of your listeners. One of the biggest crimes one can do in life is to destroy someone’s potential. By speaking negatively, you are destroying his or her potential to have relationships with others. This kills a person in professional and personal life. Even if you ultimately have remorse, it is hard to take back defamatory words already spoken and undo the character assassination already committed. That person’s reputation is forever blemished.
The third person destroyed by speaking lashon is the person to whom you are speaking. The listener seems to be an innocent bystander; a mere victim of circumstance who happened to be present when someone began speaking lashon hara to him or her. “All I did was listen,” s/he says but the Talmud says that listening to lashon hara is even worse than speaking it because the person had the power to stop it but didn’t.
The fact that lashon hara destroys is clear, but why in the verse above were the descendants of Aaron chosen for the task of diagnosing tzarat (which comes from speaking lashon hara)? Like most bad actions, lashon hara can be traced to some character flaw in the perpetrator. One who speaks negatively of others is truly in need of some personal introspection and character correction yet s/he chooses to study the deficiencies in others (By speaking negatively about them.) How can we rehabilitate this person?
G-d created a signal to indicate that something is wrong. How does someone know s/he is sick? The body gives a message that things are not as they should be. It might be intense pain, vomiting, or a stomach ailment but the procedure is the same in all cases; you go to a doctor and have it checked out. The same is true when one contracts tzarat; it in an indication that s/he has spoken lashon hara and therefore has some character defect-spiritual illness. Why must the person with a character defect go to a Kohen? In Pirkei Avot (Ethics from the Sages 1:12) it states, “Be from the students of Aaron, love peace, pursue peace, love people, and bring them close to Torah.” Aaron and his children are predisposed to love and care for others. They are not only competent to diagnose the physical symptom of the disease, but they are also known to be compassionate and likely to seek out a solution to help this person realize where s/he went wrong.
Today we do not contract the illness of tzaras when speaking lashon hara nor do we have a Kohen to help us discover which character trait we need to rectify. What hope, then, is there for us? The only tools we have are to read, think, and speak about how awful lashon hara is and surround ourselves with likeminded people. When someone begins to speak negatively about someone else, think about the three people lashon hara potentially kills. (Note: It is obviously permitted to relay a negative report about someone if that person might cause you harm.)
Years ago, I saw the following story. One day in Jerusalem, two old friends ran into each other on a bus. In the course of their conversation, one of them casually mentioned the name of an old friend. The other replied, “Didn’t you hear? She just got engaged last week to so-and-so!”
This news left her friend both elated and shocked. “It’s wonderful that she finally got engaged … but to him!? Who would have ever thought that she would settle for a person with so many problems?” The other person listened and proceeded to list several problems not only with the groom but also with his family.
After a few minutes, a woman who was sitting behind them turned to them and said, “Thank you so much. I am the aunt of the woman who just got engaged; our family was not aware about these serious allegations against her fiancé and his family. When I get home, I’m going to call my niece and convince her to break the engagement.”
The friends begged her not to do so and explained that they were just innocently chatting and didn’t really mean many of the things they said and even exaggerated on some points. “Please don’t break-up this couple because of our poor judgment.” Just then, the bus reached the woman’s stop. This wise woman paused before exiting and turned to them and said, “You have nothing to worry about; I’m not really her aunt … but I could have been!”
May we all merit having the ability to control what comes out of our mouths and what comes through our ears.