This week’s Torah portion continues where Parshat Tazria left off, and describes the purification process of an individual who has become affected with tzara’at (leprosy). The verse states, “This shall be the law of the person (metsorah) afflicted with tzara’at, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the Kohen.” (Vayikra 14:2) Many Biblical commentators offer lengthy and varying explanations as to the exact nature of the tzara’at affliction, they make it clear that tzara’at was in actuality a physical manifestation of deeper spiritual malaises. The Talmud in Tractate Arachin quotes the opinion of Reish Lakish, who brings our above verse to explain the specific spiritual issue which was involved in contracting tzara’at: speaking slander about another. The Talmud writes, “Reish Lakish said, what is the meaning of the verse: This shall be the law of the person (metsorah) afflicted with tzara’at, it means this shall be the law for the person who spoke slander (motzi shem ra) about others.” (Arachin 15b) The Talmud continues and writes that not only does a person who speaks slander about others become afflicted with tzara’at, but that “one who bears evil tales almost denies the foundation of faith.” There are two questions that arise from the above segment of the Talmud; first, why does the Talmud consider the sin of Lashon Hara (evil speech) so severe to the extent that it is considered as if the person speaking it almost denies the foundation of Jewish faith? Secondly, why is it specifically the affliction of tzara’at that is used as the punishment for this sin?
In his work Netivot Shalom, the late Rebbe of the Slonim Hassidic dynasty, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, offers an insightful explanation which sheds light onto our first question. He explains that the Torah often refers to the Jewish nation as “children of God” and that this recognition is a fundamental principle of faith and Jewish life. And similar to any parent/child relationship, whereby a parent cannot consent to someone speaking ill of their precious child so too God cannot stand idly by when people speak negatively about any of His children, i.e. the Jewish people. That is why the punishment for the sin of Lashon Hara is so severe, and why someone who gossips is considered to have “almost denied the foundation of faith.” The gossiper is punished for causing God pain by the evil speech, and even more so for his open renunciation of this great principle of faith. (Netivot Shalom, Vayikra pg 60)
Some might be tempted to think that Lashon Hara is an inconsequential vice — after all, Lashon Hara is only words, meaningless and without power. However, the truth is that Lashon Hara does not only create negativity on a spiritual level, but it also negatively influences our physical world in the here and now.
In his work Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England, brings several historical examples of the practical and disastrous consequences of negative speech, one of which we will cite here:
In the early 13th century, a bitter dispute broke out between devotees and critics of Maimonides. For the former, he was one of the greatest Jewish minds of all time. For the latter, he was a dangerous thinker whose works contained heresy and whose influence led people to abandon the commandments.
There were ferocious exchanges. Each side issued condemnations and excommunications against the other. There were pamphlets and counter-pamphlets, sermons and counter-sermons, and for while French and Spanish Jewry were convulsed by the controversy. Then, in 1232, Maimonides’ books were burned by the Dominicans. The shock brought a brief respite; then extremists desecrated Maimonides’ tomb in Tiberius. In the early 1240’s, following the Disputation of Paris, Christians burned all the copies of the Talmud they could find. It was one of the great tragedies of the Middle Ages…One way or another, throughout the Middle Ages, many of the worst Christian persecutions of Jews were either incited by converted Jews, or exploited internal weaknesses of the Jewish community.(Covenant and Conversation 5768)
Rabbi Sacks explains that though the Jews of the 13th Century engaged for the sake of religious debate, nevertheless, when slander of the character of Maimonides entered the discussion, dire physical consequences for the Jewish people followed. Not only that, but the spiritual greatness of Judaism suffered as well. Writes Rabbi Sacks, “Diminishing their opponents, the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith diminished themselves and their faith. They managed to convey the impression that Judaism is simple-minded, narrow, incapable of handling complexity, helpless in the face of challenge, a religion of anathemas instead of arguments, excommunication instead of reasoned debate…one weeps to see a great tradition brought so low…” (Covenant and Conversation 5768) Judaism never was and never will be a homogeneous religion or people, the very founding of our nation was born from the 12 sons of Jacob, each with their own unique character and strengths(See Parshat Vayishlach Unity in Israel for more on this idea). The entire Talmud, one of the mainstays of religious texts after the Torah, is itself full of questions, debates and disagreements. However, there is a fundamental difference between expressing differences and disagreements, and engaging in Lashon Hara, gossip and slander. The first helps to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding, while the latter is only engaged in creating disharmony and burning those bridges to the ground.
This explanation leads us to answer our second question: why was it specifically the affliction of leprosy that punished the sin of Lashon Hara? Explains Rabbi Sacks, “What an astonishing insight it was to see leprosy – that disfiguring disease – as a symbol and symptom of evil speech. For we truly are disfigured when we use words to condemn, not communicate; to close rather than open minds; when we use language as a weapon and wield it brutally… Linguistic violence is no less savage than physical violence, and those who afflict others are themselves afflicted. Words wound. Insults injure. Evil speech destroys communities. Language is G-d’s greatest gift to humankind and it must be guarded if it is to heal, not harm.” (Covenant and Conversation 5768)
The tragedy which befell the Jewish people in the times of Maimonides was not the first time — and was most assuredly not the last time — that Lashon Hara led to drastic consequences for the people of Israel. However, by internalizing the fact that each member of the Jewish nation is inherently connected to one another as the “children of God”, and by recognizing the ever present danger that is inherit in evil speech, may we merit to make concrete strides in removing this destructive practice from within our society.