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The Power of Speech

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

What is the connection between speaking badly and contracting this skin disease?

One man spread a rumor about another. He later felt regret, and went to the rabbi to ask how to make amends. "Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds," said the rabbi, "then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week."

The man did as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. "Now," said the rabbi, "go back to the field and pick up all the seeds."

"But," protested the man, "those seeds have scattered far and wide! I’ll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!"

"Exactly," explained the rabbi. "Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone."

One of the most difficult sections of the Torah to understand is this week's parsha which discusses Tzarat, a skin disease commonly mis-translated as "leprosy."

In truth, Tzarat is a physical manifestation of a spiritual deficiency. The Talmud (Arachin 16) says that Tzarat comes specifically as a consequence of "Loshon Hara" ― negative speech about another person. For example, we see that when Moses’ sister Miriam spoke Loshon Hara, she contracted Tzarat (Numbers, chapter 12).

What is the connection between speaking badly ― gossiping about another ― and contracting this skin disease?

To Build or to Destroy

Speech is the tool of creation. Through it we can build individuals and the world. We can praise, encourage, and give others confidence. By making others feel important, we build them up, as if to say, "Your existence is necessary." This is life-giving and life-affirming.

One of the great American rabbis of the past generation, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zt"l, was known to have brought a neighbor back to Torah observance simply by caring enough to say "good morning."

On the other hand, speech can also be used to destroy. Words like "you’re worthless" wipes out a person’s self-esteem. As King Solomon says, "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). The Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword ― since it kills many people, even at great distance.

Remember the expression "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me"? This was clearly not said by a Jew!

Beyond the individual destruction, we have all seen the power of gossip ― a vicious rumor ― to tear apart relationships, families, and even entire communities.

Of course, just as the Torah prohibits speaking Loshon Hara, we are prohibited from even listening to it. (Which makes sense ― if I can’t listen, then you can’t speak it!) By listening to negative talk we fuel the viciousness and become desensitized to its effect on others.

From here we can understand a section of this week’s parsha, Leviticus 13:45-46. The Torah says that when someone has been diagnosed as having Tzarat, they must go outside the boundaries of the city and shout "Contaminated!" to anyone who approaches. The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will also suffer the divisiveness of separation from community.

Limits of Loshon Hara

Many people make the mistake of thinking that the Torah prohibition of negative speech is limited only to saying falsity and untruth. But this is not so. Lying falls under a separate prohibition, expressed in Exodus 20:13, 23:7.

Loshon Hara, meanwhile, is the prohibition against saying anything negative or derogatory about another person ― even when it’s true!

Often, Loshon Hara will couch itself in a cloak of rationalizations. It doesn’t even matter whether the words are spoken implicitly or implied. If the message can be construed negatively, then it is a violation of Loshon Hara.

Be aware of potential Loshon Hara situations and stop them before they start. For instance, reunions are particularly rife with gossip: "Oh, did you hear about so-and-so..."

The Talmud says that the human body was constructed to help a person refrain from Loshon Hara. The teeth and lips serve as "gates" to regulate what emerges from our mouth, while the tongue lies in a horizontal resting position. Furthermore, while humans have two eyes, two ears and two nostrils ― we have only one mouth as a reminder to minimize chatter. And, says the Talmud, for what purpose did God create ear lobes? So that if we find ourselves in a situation where Loshon Hara is being spoken, we can conveniently turn the lobes upwards as ear plugs!

Here are some commonly-spoken forms of Loshon Hara to watch out for:

  1. "But it’s true!"
  2. "But I didn’t even mention his name!"
  3. "I wouldn’t care if someone said the same thing about me."
  4. "Everyone knows about it already, anyway."
  5. "He wouldn’t mind."
  6. "I’d say it even to his face."
  7. "Just kidding!"
  8. "There he goes again... "
  9. (Saying nothing...but rolling your eyes!)
  10. "People from that city are so..."
  11. "It’s all in the name of business competition!"
  12. "This may be Loshon Hara, but..."
  13. "C’mon, you can tell me..."

All these qualify as Loshon Hara.

There is one exception to this rule, however. We may speak or listen to negative information if we are absolutely sure it is for the constructive purpose of preventing future damage. But before you go ahead and use this exemption, make sure the following conditions apply:

  • The information must be objectively true, not a matter of taste or opinion.
  • You must have first-hand information, not hearsay.
  • You must first give the perpetrator a chance to respond to the allegations.
  • You can have no ulterior motive or personal gain from what you say.
  • You must avoid mentioning names whenever possible.

Why Do People Gossip?

What would motivate one person to speak badly about another?

Low self-esteem. When a person feels down about himself, there are two ways to feel better – either 1) make the effort to work and build oneself up (this is a lot of hard work!), or 2) put others down. The reasoning being, if I can lower others, then I don’t look so bad by comparison! But that’s the easy way, the "quick high." And is that the kind of person you want to be?

The media has built an empire around knocking down big targets ― like movie stars, politicians and business leaders. For the average person who may see himself languishing in mediocrity, it is a source of aggravation to see others’ success in life! So, knock them down ― and problem solved!

This may explain as well some basis for anti-Semitism. The nation that holds itself to a higher standard is a constant reminder of the human potential for sanctity and morality. Why is the world so eager to point out every misstep taken by Israel? Because by eliminating respect for that higher standard, the obligation to strive for that standard likewise falls away.

The first step in avoiding Loshon Hara is to recognize our own faults and commit to improving on them. When I accept that I alone am responsible for my inadequacies, then I will similarly be less critical and more tolerant of others.

If you find yourself getting "down" about yourself or others, try focusing away from the faults and instead on the virtues. It will lift you out of your negativity.

The Torah says: Feeling down? Don’t take the easy way out. Work hard and improve yourself.

Judge Others Favorably

So what happens if we inadvertently hear Loshon Hara? The Talmud says that we should not automatically accept it as being true. Rather, the rule is "innocent until proven guilty."

There is a famous story about the great Talmudic sage the Rashash (Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun, 19th century Vilna) who had a fund to lend money to poor people. One day while the rabbi was studying Talmud, the local tailor came in to repay his loan of 10,000 rubles. The rabbi was so engrossed in his learning, that he stuck the money in the book and forgot about it.

A week later, the rabbi was reviewing his loan ledger and noticed that the 10,000 ruble loan was never paid. So he called the tailor and asked him to pay it. "But I paid you back last week," said the tailor. "Okay, then where’s your receipt?" said the rabbi, who truly had no recollection of being paid back. "You were studying and I didn’t want to disturb you," replied the tailor.

Soon enough word got out that the tailor and the rabbi were involved in a financial dispute. "The nerve of this man to pit his word against the rabbi!" they all said. The tailor’s reputation was ruined, and he was shunned by the community.

About a year later, the rabbi was reviewing a section of Talmud and came across an envelope containing 10,000 rubles. Then he realized what had happened! He immediately called the tailor and apologized. "But your apology doesn’t help me," he said sadly. "My reputation is ruined forever!"

"Don’t worry," said the rabbi. "I’ll make a public announcement in the synagogue, letting everyone know that it was I who had made the mistake."

"But that won’t help," said the tailor. "They’ll think you’re just saying it because you feel sorry for me."

The rabbi thought long and hard until he came up with a solution. "You have a daughter and I have a son," he said. "Let’s arrange for them to be married. In that way, everyone will be assured that you are fully trustworthy, for otherwise I would never agree to this match." And with that, the harm was repaired.

But it’s not always so easy...

Speech and the Process of Redemption

The Talmud asks: Why was the Holy Temple destroyed? Because people spoke Loshon Hara about each other. Thus, says the Chafetz Chaim (the 20th century codifier of the laws of Loshon Hara), refraining from gossip is the single most effective way to reverse the damage and bring about the redemption!

There is no better time to undertake this challenge than today. We find ourselves in the season of redemption. Passover celebrates our emergence from slavery unto freedom. Also at this time we count the Omer, on the way toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Now is the time to break the dissention and divisiveness which plague our people.

Two rabbis in Jerusalem have written user-friendly guides outlining the parameters of Loshon Hara. They are both excellent sources for further study: "Guard Your Tongue" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, and "Chafetz Chaim ― A Lesson A Day" by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz. In addition, many cities offer pre-recorded telephone classes dealing with Loshon Hara.

Imagine how the world would change ... if all humanity jumped on this bandwagon?!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons


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