Metzorah 5781 – Guard Your Tongue from Evil

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Everyone is born with a powerful weapon which can be used both for good and evil. This weapon is your tongue. Your tongue is used to create thousands of words every day, and each word has the power to harm or to heal, to hurt or to help. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the power of words. The ancient sages believed that leprosy was a punishment for slander and spreading malicious gossip. By gossiping, you hurt someone’s reputation and make them appear poorly in public. In return, you are punished with a skin disease that causes you to appear poorly before others.

The affliction of tzaraat, which was incorrectly translated as leprosy, was a punishment for transgressions of speaking lashon hara, which translated literally means the evil tongue or evil speech and includes slander, gossip, rumors and other things.  The sages teach that gossip is like leprosy because it is highly contagious. One infected person can spread a malicious rumor to many others.The person who does the evil speaking which leads to the punishment of tzaraat is the Metzorah.

The Torah views the appearance of the white spots as a signal for an individual who suffers from tzaraat to examine his or her deeds and repent.

The entire phenomenon of tzaraat was God’s way of making the transgression public and stigmatized.

Both the onset and termination of the state of tzaraat are affected by the proclamation of a Kohen. The Kohen was both the religious and the medical authority. Only the Kohanim were able to declare someone ritually impure. It is easy to understand why: if neighbors were allowed to declare each other impure, there could be all kinds of panic and nasty accusations, and people might use this as a weapon for personal gain or revenge. It is hard to be objective about someone’s problems if your life is bound up in theirs.

If a person was declared a leper by the priests, the public health needs of the community were made paramount, and the person was placed outside the community until fully healed. This may be one of the first examples of social distancing. The person was considered ritually impure and in danger of contaminating the camp both physically and spiritually.

The Kohen also had the job to reintegrate the person into the community as soon as possible.

To quote the Orchot Tzadikim:  ” Before you speak, you are the master of your words. After you speak, your words master you.”

The sages go to remarkable lengths to emphasize the seriousness of lashon hara. It is, they say, as bad as all three cardinal sins together-idol worship, bloodshed, and illicit sexual relations. It kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one of whom it is spoken, and the one who receives it. Why are your words treated with such seriousness in Judaism?

What made Judaism different from other religions is that it is a religion of holy words. God communicated to the Israelites through words. In Judaism, language itself is holy. That is why lashon hara, the use of language to harm, is not merely a minor offense. It involves taking something that is holy and using it for purposes that are unholy. It is a kind desecration.

Speaking negatively about others inevitably causes friendships to break apart and people to distance themselves from each other.

Gossiping is evil and has no defense. You could be saying the unvarnished, absolute truth, but it is still a sin. The metzorah is sent to solitary confinement not just wait for his tzaraat to cure, but to reflect on the lack of judgment that caused the sickness in the first place.

The process that the metzorah must go through is intended to demonstrate the destructiveness of his sin and teach him how to improve himself in the future so that he avoids sinning such a way again.

I think we can see that the Torah disagrees with the last part of the old saying that ” sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me.”

Speaking and thinking ill of another person, construing their actions in the worst possible way, gossiping and spreading rumors which harm the reputation of another person-these activities are so widespread among our contemporaries that they no longer attract notice at all. Those practices provoke a cynical disregard of human decency; they cultivate our suspicions of each other and our assumption that others are speaking ill of us behind our backs just as we are of them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written about the entire issue of speech and its impact on people, which has become massively amplified by the spread of smart phones and social media and their impact, especially on young people and on the entire tone of the public conversation. Online abuse is a plague of our age. Just last week I saw the following headline:” NY teen dies by suicide after cyberbully used pictures to blackmail him.” It has happened because of the ease and impersonal nature of communication. It gives rise to what has been called the disinhibition effect: people feel freer to be cruel and crude online than they would be in a face-to-face situation.  When you are not face-to-face with another person it is easier to allow all the meanness within you to leak out, with sometimes devastating effects. The number of teenage suicides and attempted suicides has doubled in the past 10 years, and most attribute the rise to the effect of social media. Rarely have the laws of lashon hara been more timely and more necessary.

Rabbi Sacks also said:” I believe we need the laws of lashon hara now more than almost ever before. Social media is awash with hate. The language of politics has become slanderous and vile.  We seem to have forgotten what the Torah portion is here to remind us: that evil speech is a plague. It destroys relationships, rides roughshod over people’s feelings, debases the public square, turns politics into a jousting match between competing egos and defiles all that is sacred about life. It need not be like this.”

Metzora contains a cautionary tale – a reminder of the power of language. Language allows us to communicate with others and share with them our fears, hopes, loves, feelings, and intentions. Speech allows us to convey our inwardness to others. It is the very heart of our relationships..

In an age of corrosive mistrust, a lack of confidence in our public leaders, and an alienating sense of loneliness and isolation, there is little hope of establishing real community until we learn to speak a new language – one of responsibility, kindness and compassion. Rather than speaking about other people, we can speak to them. By learning to channel and control our speech, we will transform our world from one of isolation and cynicism to one of community and trust.