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The True Lie

Metzora (Leviticus 14-15 )

by Rabbi Yosef Farhi

Our Torah portion discusses the leper, the metzora. Although our Rabbis teach that the cause of leprosy is speaking gossip, lashon hara, this is not mentioned specifically in the two Torah portions that discuss the leper and his purity. Our Rabbis teach that this name of the leper, "metzora", is a shortened version of the words 'motzi shem ra,' one who slanders and spreads rumors about others. Generally speaking, lashon hara refers to saying negative truths about others. Motzi shem ra, in contrast, is spreading negative non-truths about others (slander).

Most of the time when we say something negative about others, we are not fabricating. If so, why is the main title for the parasha and the leper, motzi shem ra - which refers to telling a lie?

The answer lies in a Rashi in Parashat Shlach. When the spies came and spoke negatively about the Land of Canaan, Rashi comments "Any lie not preceded by a small truth will not be believed". First, the spies mentioned the truth - the power of the Land and its people, the magnificent fruit. Only after having cited praises of the Holy Land, did they lie and say "We cannot capture the Land." Here, Rashi is quoting the Midrash almost word for word. However, the Midrash says, "Any lashon hara that is not preceded by a small truth will not be believed." How can we understand Rashi's change of terminology?

I believe the answer is that ultimately, lashon hora is always false, even though it conveys accurate information. If, for example, you witness someone shoplifting and relate what you have seen to a friend, probably, the friend will perceive this person as a "shoplifter". Even if the "shoplifter" returns the item and does full repentance, you gave this person a "shoplifter" label and that is how he will be perceived in the eyes of the one who accepted your gossip even long after this person accepted on himself to never shoplift again. It could also be that he stole from the store a small item, and in the eyes of the person who accepted your gossip the picture he got was that he stole an expensive perfume. The shoplifter label you placed on this man is often far from the truth! This fellow might have given in to a sudden impulse that he now bitterly regrets. In other words, the "true" information that was passed on has created a false impression. Rashi may well be hinting at this in his substituting the word lie for lashon hora.

Though there are not a lot of good things we can learn from lawyers, this one is an exception. If someone would pay you $10,000 to find some way to justify a theft, you might just come up with a valid-sounding argument. It may be that your point is not a hundred percent true, but you would possibly be able to see the "thief" in a new light. This is exactly what the person who speaks negatively does, but in the reverse. He somehow manages to put the person spoken about in a bad light. He makes the one who sinned look like much more than just a person who sinned: now, he is labeled as a sinner, implying that with him, sin is habitual. There is no greater damage that can be done to a person than categorizing him as a habitual wrong-doer because of a negative action that he has done.

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