The Power of Speech: Death and Life Are in the Tongue
Tazria (Leviticus 12-13 )
This week's parashah deals with the illness of tzaraas (spiritual leprosy), which in Biblical times afflicted those who spoke lashon hara. Most people are under the impression that lashon hara connotes speech containing fabrications regarding others, but that is erroneous. All evil, derogatory talk falls under the category of lashon hara, even if it is the truth.
Our Torah regards the sin of lashon hara as so heinous that those who were guilty of it succumbed to a skin disease known as "tzaraas." Since this was a spiritual ailment (albeit with physical manifestations), the afflicted had to be brought before Aaron the High Priest or his descendants, rather than to a physician, for examination and healing.1
The question that must occur to us is why the person must be brought, specifically, before Aaron the High Priest. What was so special about him that enabled him to examine and cure the individual who spoke lashon hara?
Lashon hara creates divisiveness; it generates animosity and contempt, forces that are antithetic to harmony and well-being. Aaron the High Priest loved people with such intensity that he was able to neutralize those negative forces. Ethics of the Fathers 1:12 states, "Aaron loved peace and pursued peace." When he saw two people in conflict, he would approach each of them individually and say, "You know, your friend truly regrets this altercation. As a matter of fact, he beseeched me to approach you on his behalf. He loves you and wants to make peace with you." He would then repeat the very same message to the other party involved and thus would appease them and make peace. To appreciate the awesomeness of Aaron's deed, contrast his way to that which has unfortunately become the norm in our society, in which people are only too happy to repeat gossip and thus further incite and deepen conflicts between others. Throughout his life, Aaron was determined to cement ties and bring harmony and love to fragmented families and broken relationships. When Aaron died, all of Israel, the entire nation, wept and mourned, for at one time or another, everyone had been touched by his awesome love and his passionate commitment to peace, and they realized that that gift was irreplaceable.
Perhaps now we can better appreciate why Aaron's descendants were designated to bless the Jewish people through Bircas HaKohanim (the Priestly Blessings). Prior to pronouncing these benedictions, the priests are commanded to say, "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love." What is the holiness of Aaron? It is the total devotion and commitment that Aaron felt for each and every Jew, a commitment summarized in one little word: b'ahavah - with love. It is Aaron's love that is the unique hallmark of all his descendants, and it is that love that is the most vital qualification for imparting blessing.
CAN LASHON HARA EVER BE JUSTIFIED?
There are those who would justify speaking lashon hara by claiming that they are just being honest and forthright and telling the truth. But Aaron taught us that there are times when truth must take a back seat, for we cannot and dare not put others to shame. We do have specific laws regarding giving honest information concerning shidduchim and business partnerships so that people are not misled. However, even in such cases, we must know how to phrase our words ... what to reveal and what to hold back ... and a Torah authority should be consulted before information is shared.
Lashon hara is such a serious infraction that there are 14 positive commandments and 17 negative commandments regarding it. The great sage, the Chofetz Chaim, warned that lashon hara is the most destructive of all sins, for it literally destroys people. Indeed, "death and life are in the tongue."2 God created us in such a way that our own organs serve to remind us to be aware of the potential danger inherent in our tongues. Our organs are either external (eyes, ears, etc.) or internal (kidneys, heart, lungs, etc.). The tongue is the only organ that is both internal and external. To protect it from misuse, God gave us two gates to guard it: our teeth and our lips, reminding us that, before we use our tongues, we should shut the gates and carefully consider whether we should allow our tongues to speak or whether it would be wiser to remain silent and keep the gates closed.
GUARD THAT WHICH ENTERS AND LEAVES YOUR MOUTH
Parashas Tazria and Metzora are usually read together. The word metzora is a combination of two words, motzei and ra, meaning, to speak evil of others. The juxtaposition of these parshiyos to Parashas Shemini is very instructive, for in the previous parashah we studied not only the dangers of speaking lashon hara, but about forbidden, non-kosher foods as well. By placing these two parshiyos - forbidden food and lashon hara - next to each other, the Torah reminds us that not only must we be careful about that which enters our mouths (that which we eat), but we must be equally careful about that which comes forth from our lips (that which we say). We must be ever on guard not to cause pain to anyone with our words. Since this is no small achievement, we pray for God's help and guidance. Therefore, we conclude every Amidah service with those awesome words, "My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully."3
Lashon hara is the equivalent of all three cardinal sins, a concept that might be difficult for us to absorb. In the 21st century, gossip has become a profession. Newspapers employ gossip columnists. Gossip columnists have social cachet and are very much sought after by hostesses and the media, and some of the biggest bestsellers are based on gossip. Our Torah laws are like a beacon of light that illuminates our path and reminds us of our higher calling. Speech is a Divine gift, given only to man. To abuse that gift is to betray that trust.
To what extent we must go to avoid lashon hara can be learned from Miriam, the prophetess, who in good faith criticized her younger brother Moses, and for those seemingly innocent words, was afflicted with tzaraas. The Torah commands us to remember what happened to Miriam and be cautious with our words even when we believe that we are speaking for the benefit of another.
THE HEALING EFFECTS OF THE TORAH
This shall be the Torah [Law] of the metzora."4 A metzora is someone who sins by speaking lashon hara. Interestingly, the word "Torah" is invoked five times in this regard, teaching us that he who speaks evil about others is considered as if he had transgressed all Five Books of the Torah. Surely, this should impress upon each and every one of us the severity of this transgression.
Contrast this to the childish rhyme that is so popular in our culture: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.
Regarding this rhyme, our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, would often say that reality proves just the opposite. To mend broken bones, one can always consult an orthopedist, but where can one go with a broken heart? Who can heal scars on the soul?
REMORSE: INDICATION OF TRUE SINCERITY
"This shall be the law of the metzora" is written in the future tense, teaching us that feelings of remorse and a resolve to refrain from speaking lashon hora must characterize the metzora even after he goes through his purification process. In time of crisis and pain, it is easy to make commitments of teshuvah, but maintaining those commitments once the crisis has abated and healing has taken place is the true test of one's sincerity. How can a person hold on to his resolve and keep his promises? The answer is Torah study, the best maintenance program.
When Torah study is undertaken with purity of heart, it elevates, heals, and protects from spiritual malaise. God assures us of this, "I created the yetzer hara (the evil inclination), but I created the Torah as an antidote to it."5
- Leviticus 13:12.
- See Proverbs 18:21: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue...."
- See Psalms 34:14.
- Leviticus 14:2.
- Kiddushin 30b.