The Secret Weapon
Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )
We all walk around carrying a powerful secret weapon - our power of speech. In fact, ancient Jewish sources teach that speaking properly - by not gossiping, slandering, or speaking badly of others (even if it's true) - besides being the right thing to do, is a powerful way to spiritually protect ourselves and others from all sorts of problems and dangers.
This week's Torah portion teaches how at one time, God would give people a special type of warning when they were speaking improperly, so they could correct themselves. Today, we must rely on paying careful attention to what we say, and trying our best to use the 'secret weapon' of our tongues, to speak only good and bring good things into our lives.
In our story, a girl discovers a secret about the power of speech.
Sometimes you meet people in the strangest places. For instance, who would have thought that the dentist's office could turn into a school reunion? Well I certainly didn't, as I sat in Dr. Cushing's waiting room last Wednesday afternoon.
Despite my toothache, I was starting to relax to the mellow music playing in the background, and about to dive into one of my favorite magazines as I waited for my appointment. Suddenly I heard a familiar sounding voice speaking to the receptionist. I looked up, and got a real blast from the past.
"Sherry Leavitt, is that really you?!" I cried out. My old school friend wheeled around, and after a few seconds of trying to recognize me, got the picture and flashed me a smile so bright that it made me wonder what she was doing at the dentist at all.
"Hey Fran," she said, "I can't believe it. Did you move back to town?"
I laughed. "No such luck, I just came in for this dentist's appointment. My mom always says that if you find a good dentist, you don't give him up even if you have to travel half-way around the world."
I eagerly sat down next to my old friend who I hadn't seen in a couple of years and put down what I was reading. Surely the latest gossip from the old neighborhood would be much more interesting than anything the magazine had to offer.
Sherry had only come in for a check-up and cleaning, and was really happy to see me. She spoke animatedly about the weather, what she has been learning in school and books. But every time I would bring up a name from the old days, and inquire about the latest juicy news, Fran seemed to look uncomfortable and tried to change the subject. What was going on?
Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. "Sherry, are you hiding something from me?" I burst out. "I've been waiting two years to hear something juicy, and now all you can tell me is that everyone's fine?"
My friend looked at me and said something that I don't think I'll ever forget. "Well, you see Fran, lately, I've decided not to talk so much about other people. It seems as if almost always, somehow or other, something gets said that's embarrassing or hurtful. So I try to find less dangerous things to speak about."
By now, my mouth was open so wide that I had forgotten about my toothache. I felt kind of disappointed to realize I wasn't going to be getting any gossip, but I guess I could see her point. Any gossip worth listening to had to have at least a little dirt in it.
But there was one thing I still didn't get... "Sherry, what do you mean about speaking about 'dangerous' things'?" I asked.
"Well I mean, I learned that when we hold back from saying anything bad about other people, God brings good things - into our lives, the life of who we're talking to, and the person we didn't gossip about. Good things that we wouldn't want to miss out on. I figure that's worth giving up a juicy bit of gossip for, don't you?"
I certainly couldn't argue with her there. "Have you seen it help?" I asked.
Sherry smiled. "I can't say for sure, but I can tell you that since I stopped gossiping or putting anybody down, I've seen a lot of good things come into my life. But even more than that, I feel like it's made me into a nicer, better person."
Maybe it was Sherry's words, or her winning smile, but somehow I knew she was right. As I put my hand up to my sore tooth, I decided then and there to pay more attention not only to what I put into my mouth from now on, but also what would come out of my mouth as well.
Q. How did Fran feel when she first sat down with her old friend?
A. She was excited that she might get to hear some gossip about some of her old gang.
Q. How did she feel at the end?
A. She understood that it was much better not to gossip or say mean things about other people.
Q. What's so bad about a little gossip?
A. On the surface it might seem pretty harmless; after all it's only words. But our words are much more powerful than we realize. The right word can save someone's life, and the wrong word can ruin it. Words influence the way we feel about other, with impressions that can last forever. The way a person speaks reveals who he is, and has a bigger spiritual affect on himself and others than almost anything else.
Q. How far should we go to avoid gossip and negative comments about others?
A. The right thing to do is to avoid this type of speech, even if what we are saying is true, even if everybody knows already, even if people pressure us to tell, even if the person is right in front of us, even if we say it as a joke, even if we're just speaking generally about a certain group and even if the other guy spoke badly about us first.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. How can guarding our tongue protect us from difficulties and danger?
A. Besides the practical effect of keeping our foot out of our mouth and helping us get along better with the people around us, being careful how we speak creates a very powerful spiritual weapon as well. Since God treats us measure for measure, i.e. how we behave down here, we are treated above, it follows that if we don't speak badly of others, then this damaging spiritual gossip can't happen above. It's a deep concept, but the main thing to know is that one of the best, and most practical things we can do for ourselves and for others is to avoid gossip and negative speech.
Q. Granted that speaking badly of others is bad news, but is there anything wrong with just listening to this kind of talk?
A. In a sense, making oneself an audience for gossip and put-downs is just as bad or worse than saying them ourselves. Besides enabling the gossiper to do his damage, after all no one speaks unless there's someone to listen, it is our listening and especially our believing the bad things being said that ruin people's reputations and cause the damage to be done. Also, hearing these types of things also poison our mind, and make us more likely to speak the same way in the future. The right and ethical thing to do is to steer clear of gossip and gossipers whenever and however we can.