Sticks and Stones

June 23, 2009

19 min read


Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )

The true measure of a person.

It is quite impossible to appreciate the worldview of Judaism without having some familiarity with the concept of lashon hara, literally "evil speech."

In English, lashon hara can be loosely translated as "gossip"; but this misses the flavor entirely. Gossiping is no doubt an unattractive habit one might go so far as to say that it is repulsive; but no one would term it evil. But according to Torah law saying anything derogatory about anyone, whether the derogatory information is true or not is forbidden as lashon hara, literally 'evil speech,' except in very exceptional circumstances.

Indeed, Jewish thought regards this all too common social practice as one of the greatest moral evils. The sin of speaking lashon hara is regarded as the equal of the sins of idolatry, forbidden sexual acts and murder combined (Talmud, Erchin 15b) in the degree of its evil. Tradition teaches that the sin of lashon hara was responsible for bringing about the destruction of the Second Temple (Yuma 9b). It is a sin that God refuses to overlook; it brings retribution on its practitioner in this world as well as in the next.

Lashon hara is also the prime cause of contracting tzara'at – a particularly vile skin disease akin to leprosy – the illness dealt with in this week's Torah portion. (See Maimonides, Yad Hachazaka, Ethics 7:2-3; Talmud, Yuma 9b and Erechin, 16a; and, Yerushalmi, Peah 1.)

How can we relate to the severity with which the Torah regards this widespread and apparently 'harmless' social custom?


"And YHVH Elohim formed man out of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life. And man became a living being." (Genesis 2:6)

Onkelos, the translator of the Torah from the original Hebrew into Aramaic, translates the word 'living' as 'speaking'; his version: "And man became a speaking being."

God's breath in man – the source of the Divine life force in the human being – is manifest in him as the power of speech. The ability to express his innermost thoughts and communicate them to others is the phenomenon that connects man to the Divine.

While all of creation – itself brought into being through a series of speeches – testifies to the glory of God, apart from the solitary exception of man the testimony is mute. Only man is able to comprehend and verbalize the idea that his very existence is an expression of God's glory. Only he can give voice to the testimony that the entire universe was created to express. His power of speech casts man in the role of the universal spokesman; as we shall see, this unique role is his reason for being.

King Solomon expressed the thought in a more dramatic way:

"Death and life are in the hands of the tongue, and whoever loves either will eat of its fruit." (Proverbs 18:21)

The Midrash, elaborates the meaning of the above verse with the help of a metaphor:

The king of Persia took ill and was advised by his doctors that he needed to drink the milk of a lioness in order to be cured. Someone volunteered to bring the king fresh lion's milk; he only asked for ten goats. He took the goats and traveled to where the lions hang out. On the first day, when he was sure that a lioness saw him clearly, he threw her a goat from far away. The next day he came closer... by the tenth day he had won her trust and managed to obtain a full jug of lion's milk.

On his way back he had a vision; the parts of his body had a major argument. The legs said, "None of the other limbs can compare to us. If we would not have transported the body, it would have been impossible to obtain this milk." The hands argued that they were without parallel. If they hadn't performed the various actions necessary, it would have been impossible to obtain the milk. The heart argued that if it had not come up with the idea of the goats the entire project would have been impossible. The tongue argued that if it had not spoken up, all would have been for naught.

All the other limbs were enraged at the tongue, "How do you even dare to make any claim? You are in a dark place hidden away, you can't do anything and can't think of anything!" The tongue told them, "You will see, this very day you will all agree that I am your master."

After the man heard all this, he went to the king and told him, "Your majesty, here is the bitch's milk." The king was enraged and demanded that he should be hung. On the way to the execution, all the limbs began to cry. The tongue told them, "Didn't I tell you that you are all helpless? If I save you, will you all acknowledge my superiority?" They all agreed.

The man then asked the executioner to let him speak with the king once again, and his request was granted. He told the king to try the milk as it would surely cure him, and anyway many people also refer to a lioness as a bitch. The king tried the milk and was cured, and the man was spared. Indeed "death and life are in the hands of the tongue"! (Midrash Shochar Tov, Ch. 39)

The Midrash emphasizes a concept we often overlook; the impact of events can never be measured in terms of the events themselves; the impact is a function of the way they are perceived and communicated. This rule applies to the universe as a whole just as much as it does to the things that take place in it.


The world that God created is not clear-cut; it does not speak for itself and is subject to interpretation. Everything that happens in the world can be interpreted in more than one way. Until the tongue has its say, no one knows how to size up the significance of anything.

Look at John Smith, a man who started on the bottom and fought his way to the pinnacle of success. Someone can put him down and say that John Smith comes from a really low class family. Someone else can relate to the same information with admiration and say that John Smith managed to accomplish a great deal without any strong family backing. Jane Doe positively dominated an important meeting and managed to prevail over strong opposition. Some will say that Jane Doe was so rude and overbearing that everyone just decided to let her have her way. Others will say that Jane Doe knows how to stand up for her principles and isn't it wonderful how hard she fought to defend her beliefs.

Events and actions provide the backdrop against which the tongue wields its might. We are all familiar with this phenomenon. Publicists and "spin doctors" are much in demand in our world and the talented ones command very high salaries.

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this phenomenon, as Jewish history shows.

Rava said, "No one could speak lashon hara like Haman. He told Achasuerus, 'Let's destroy them [the Jews]!' The king answered, 'I'm afraid of their God, lest He do to me what He did to earlier kings [Nebuchadnezar, Belshezar and Sanherub, who were all destroyed for their maltreatment of the Jewish people].' Haman told him, 'They are dormant in their observance of the commandments.' The king said, 'What about their rabbis?' Haman answered, 'They are a single people [their rabbis are like the rest of them] ... they are all scattered and separated [they have lost their inner cohesion].'"(Megila 13b)

The Midrash reveals the enormous implications of what would appear to be an earth bound conversation; Haman's 'gossip' reverberated through the universe whose impact penetrated all the way up to the heavenly court; so powerful were his remarks that they were responsible for an edict of destruction to be issued against the Jewish people in Heaven.

He could have looked at the same phenomenon – the low level of observance of God's commandments among the Jews – and attributed it to extreme discouragement and depression rather than to weakness of faith. According to everyone's calculations the seventy years of the Babylonian exile should have been over by this time and yet the promised redeemer had never arrived. The presumption was that he never would arrive. But Haman chose to advance the view that the lack of observance was not due to mere discouragement but was the manifestation of a deeper malaise; a loss of direction and an abandonment of faith.

The heavenly court was forced to accept this interpretation as legitimate; it was a reasonable interpretation of the facts; a rational judgment arrived at by an intelligent human being. A negative interpretation that fits the facts on the ground cannot simply be ignored; the Attribute of Justice will not allow it; it must be refuted. The edict of destruction could only be overturned when the Jews refuted Haman's interpretation of the facts existentially through their sincere repentance.


The enormous power of lashon hara is not in the repercussions negative remarks have down here on earth but in the impact it has in heaven. Man is the spokesman of the universe. He was the only creature selected by God to be a "communicative spirit." He is the being who was appointed to interpret creation and communicate its meaning. As such, his definitions superimpose themselves on reality. When man defines an aspect of creation, even God reacts to His own creation on the basis of man's definition.

The Hebrew word for "tongue" is lashon, a word that also refers to the balancing bar at the top of the scale, the part of the mechanism that tilts the scales. It is the tongue that weighs all man's ambiguous actions and tips the balance in the direction of innocence or guilt. The 'scales of justice' are under the jurisdiction of the tongue.

Left to its own devices, the heavenly court is always inclined to be lenient and patient. If there are two possible interpretations of motivations and actions, it will always adopt the favorable view. God is never in a hurry. He is always wiling to give the benefit of the doubt. However, if down here on earth, a Jew interprets the actions of a fellow Jew in an unfavorable light, the heavenly court is bound by this earthly judgment. It will accept the unfavorable interpretation and proceed accordingly. It is 'Evil speech' that leads to judgment, not the evil action it intends to describe.


But not only is the tongue in charge of the 'scales of justice'. Through the medium of 'good' and 'evil' speech, the tongue measures the balance between physicality and spirituality to be found in each person. We human beings are a mixture of the physical and the spiritual; of bodies and souls.

As bodies we inhabit a world of limitations. We compete with each other for a limited supply of goods and honors. Theoretically whatever our colleagues have are things that could have been or could still be ours instead. In this sort of situation we tend to put each other down. Since everyone's position in a competition is relative to first place, if I bring someone down that puts me so much closer to the front; or at least gives me the comfort of knowing that I am not the only loser. This type of world-view leads directly to evil speech.

As souls we are in a limitless world. Each one of us was sent to the world to accomplish something unique and given the means and the equipment to do it. Our bodies are the suits that we wear in order to be able to function in this physical world. Clothes never define the man. None of us is in competition with each other; it is impossible for anyone to get hold of anything that was written for someone else. There is nothing to be gained from anyone else's failure. On the contrary, one of the elements of my own mission is to assist anyone I possibly can to be successful at theirs. There is nothing to be gained by bringing anyone down. There is no incentive to 'evil speech'.

The amount of lashon hara a person speaks provides an accurate existential measure of how much that person sees themselves and other people as primarily spiritual and how much they regard themselves as physical. Spiritual levels cannot be measured by the dogma in people's heads. A person can walk around with the conviction that he is primarily a soul and refute his own convictions by speaking lashon hara the behavior that is only appropriate to someone who is primarily a body.

Judaism is not a dogmatic religion. The tongue is the accurate measuring stick of a person's true spiritual level, not the fancy ideas in his head.


There is one more balance in the hands of the tongue, the balance of power. To demonstrate this thesis we must first establish the correspondence between power and unity. Jews are separate entities only physically. Spiritually, the higher up we explore ourselves the more uniformity we find. We can easily grasp the sense of this. Each person is contained in a separate clearly distinguishable physical envelope. Our heights are different, the length of our noses vary widely, some of us are male some female etc.; it is easy to tell us apart from one another.

If we existed as disembodied characters we would still be distinct from one another although the differences in character are subtler and less noticeable than the physical differences between us. Some of us are more courageous, some more generous, some more humble, etc. But intellectually we are almost entirely alike. The truth is the same for all of us. The objective significance of intellectual information does not vary from person to person. We may not all be equally gifted but all minds work the same. If all of us were pure intellects it would be extremely difficult to tell us apart from one another.

In the Mincha Amidah prayer on Shabbat we make the following declaration:

"You [God] are one, Your name is One and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth."

Examining this statement in light of our thesis about individual differences, the unity of the Jewish nation referred to is clearly spiritual and reflective of the unity of God. To comprehend this sort of unity fully we must comprehend the unity of God a little better.

When we say God is One we do not mean to assert that there aren't two Gods. That is self-evident. The declaration of God's unity is really a statement concerning His uniqueness. None of us could exist in a state of unity. We need food to eat, air to breath, others to talk to and a million other things before we can be. Thus, if I am conscious of a person's existence I know that there is a world out there, there is a sun and stars and a billion other things as well. Like they say, "No man is an island." It is in this sense that God is unique in being able to exist as One: beyond space or time, without any other existence at all beside His own.

When we say that His Name is One, we are looking at God's unity from our perspective. Names are the way we focus and compress our perception and knowledge of someone into a single word that calls them instantly to mind. A name is the spiritual essence of the person being described, if you will.

The third unity mentioned in the prayer, the unity of Israel is a further reflection of the unity of God. There is God's unity as it is to Himself: You [God] are One; there is His unity as we relate to it through His name: You name is One; finally there is God's unity as it interacts with the Jewish people who become the physical embodiment of His unity just as His Name is its spiritual embodiment.

Needless to say, we can tap into a limitless source of energy if we become the physical embodiment of God's One-ness. Just as this One-ness is totally independent and requires no help or support from any other source, the Jewish people who connect to this One-ness by serving as its physical embodiment share these qualities, are fully self-sufficient and independent and in a sense omnipotent. But this sort of unity requires an inner harmony between Jews as well. You cannot act as the embodiment of One-ness when you are internally divided.


The gateway to the world of the spirit is in the power of speech, and the drawbridge that provides or denies access is controlled by the tongue. It is in speech that man combines spirituality with physicality. The faculty of speech involves the body. It is based on breath, the vocal chords, the tongue, and so on. Yet speech itself is an expression of the human spirit.

"Good speech" – lashon hatov – expresses the unity between the physical and the spiritual parts of man. When parts of man are unified, they form an entity that can plug into the third expression of God's unity, the Nation of Israel and draw energy from the source of all life the One-ness of God.

"Evil speech" – lashon hara – closes this gateway to the spiritual world. Man is stuck in the world of the physical, where he only has his own individual resources upon which he can draw.

The centrality of the idea of social unity in Judaism is clearly reflected in that bedrock of statement of Jewish ethics:

"All Jews are responsible for one another." (Talmud, Shvuoth 39a)

The implications are clear; we all benefit from each other's merits and we all suffer from each other's faults. If all Jews truly felt this way, we would feel the same compulsive impulse to conceal the faults of any fellow Jew as we feel toward concealing our own shortcomings. Indeed, we would be so biased, that we would only perceive the flaws in our fellow Jews with the same difficulty we experience in recognizing our own faults.


Unity and holiness are virtually identical concepts in Jewish thought. God's presence, the Shechinah, was manifest in the 1st Temple. The existence of a Temple in Jerusalem testifies to a state of harmony and peaceful coexistence between the spiritual and physical worlds. The first Temple, as the Shechina rested in it, clearly indicated this.

But the Second Temple had no manifest Divine presence. The Shechina never rested its Presence in it. If so, it is legitimate to wonder about the rationale of its existence. What did it represent?

If we think about it deeply, we are once again in the area of the three unities mentioned in the Mincha Prayer. God is One and His Name is One is the rationale for the first Temple on which the stamp of the Divine Name was clearly visible. But that still leaves the third unity that expresses the unity of God; the unity of the Nation of Israel is the repository of the first two unities. This third unity, the unity of Israel is the secret of the Second Temple. It stood on the unity of Israel with God.

A unified Israel is always connected to the source through the principle of "You are One and Your Name is One and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth." As long as this unity is preserved it is possible to draw life from the spiritual to the physical. The unity of Israel automatically renders the world a place that can be inundated with holiness.

The First Temple was destroyed by the cardinal sins of idolatry, licentiousness and murder. But during the Second Temple these sins were nowhere in evidence. The Talmud tells us that the Jews were diligent in Torah study and were generous in helping each other (Talmud Yuma 9b). The Second Temple was destroyed by lashon hara. As Jewish unity was the foundation upon which it was built, the dissolution of Jewish unity was its destruction.

When Jews are on a high enough spiritual level, the misuse of the tongue can make itself physically manifest. Death is the severance of the connection between the soul and the body. Severance between the spiritual and the physical is a type of death. Lashon hara, the force that severs the connection between the physical and the spiritual causes a type of death that makes a physical appearance in the form of skin disease akin to leprosy.

The metzora, the leper, is like a dead person. By speaking lashon hara, he severed the connection between his soul and his body and defined himself as a physical being. He declared himself in competition with everyone else and attempted to isolate people from each other.

When there is a Temple standing that testifies to the state of unity with God, such a person is forced to live out his inner lifestyle. He develops a terrible skin disease that isolates him from the rest of humanity. People avoid him and he becomes a social outcast. He gets to live within the spiritual atmosphere that he was busy generating through his lashon hara. He experiences the world as defined by his own tongue. He remains apart until he finds a spiritual cure for the misuse of his Divine attribute of communication. When that happens the gateway to his soul is reopened and the power of holiness pouring in cures him.

If we only learned to speak properly we would open the channels to each other and unlock the spirituality in the universe.

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