Last week, in Perashat Shemini, we learned how careful we have to be about what may enter our mouth with regard to the kosher animals that we are permitted to eat. In this week’s Perashah, Tazria, we learn how careful we have to be with what exits our mouths in terms of our speech. Speech, too, needs to be “kosher”.
The Perashah begins by describing rules regarding the birth of a new baby who is brought into this world. Our Sages have pointed out that humans are truly the only beings who are blessed with the power of speech, and with that power comes the responsibility of proper speech. The passage about the disease of Tzaraat has been linked by our Sages to Lashon Hara, or speaking negatively about others. As humans, since we have the responsibility of speech, the Torah teaches us as Jews that the penalty for Lashon Hara is Tzaraat. Hashem sends this disease as a punishment and a warning for us to stop saying bad things about others. The Torah explains that first the Tzaraat will arrive on the walls of your home, then it will spread to your clothing and lastly it will appear on your skin. The Tzaraat comes to those three places because they are all protections: the house protects your family, the clothes protects the person, and the skin protects your body. The disease comes in that order as a warning, to make us more aware and to give us a chance to stop speaking Lashon Hara. If someone has Tzaraat he must remain secluded from others for at least seven days, until the Kohen declares him pure.
Tzaraat is a Nega (plague), which is spelled Nun-Gimal-Ayin. The word Ayinsignifies the letter Ayin, but also means “eye”. If you move the letter Ayin to the beginning of the word Nega, it would read Oneg, which means pleasure, the opposite of plague. This is to say, if you look upon others with a good eye (Ayin Tovah) it will be beneficent for you and for all involved, and will thus lead to Oneg(pleasure). On the other hand, if you speak Lashon Hara about others, then you'll get the Nega, and the plague of Tzaraat that will come to your home, your clothes and ultimately your skin. It is extremely important for us as Jews to always have an Ayin Tovah, seeing others in a positive light when we look at them, just as we would want others to look upon us with an Ayin Tovah.
We learned in Perashat Bereshit that the first case of Lashon Hara was when the snake told Eve that she can eat from the Etz Hadaat. In doing so, the snake spoke Lashon Hara against Hashem. We saw how Hashem punished the snake by making him crawl on his belly for the rest of his days and how he was condemned to eat the dust of the earth. Our Sages teach us that Hashem also gave the snake dotted skin as a form of leprosy, and a split tongue. The split tongue is significant because the snake used its tongue to speak wickedly and create a rift. In this case, he told Eve that it was okay to eat from the Etz Hadaat (tree of knowledge), which went directly against Hashem's commandment not to eat of the tree, and this caused a rift between Adam and Hashem. If you look at all disputes, either between a husband and wife or with business partners and so on, those disputes all originate in Lashon Hara, where one speaks ill of the other. We're all aware that Lashon Hara is a terrible sin, yet we continue to do it. The question is why are we so compelled to still speak Lashon Hara when we know how bad it is?
One answer is that Lashon Hara stems from our own insecurity, because by speaking Lashon Hara we think we're elevating ourselves. The remedy for not speaking Lashon Hara is to focus only on the good in people, and then we will have no need to make negative comments about others! The Hafetz Hayyim dedicated his life to the laws of Lashon Hara and wrote a book about it called "Guard Your Tongue" which is essential reading for everyone, young and old!
Lashon Hara has been known to destroy lives, and there are many stories that portray this concept. The way to avoid Lashon Hara is to look upon everyone with an Ayin Tovah, and give others the benefit of the doubt, because you never know what's behind another person’s actions. One such story concerns a photographer who never showed up for a Bar-Mitzvah that he was hired for. The parents desperately called another photographer, let’s call him David, at the last minute. David originally declined because he was working at another job that night, but when he heard that the photographer who had been originally hired had cancelled at the last minute, he decided to leave his assistant in charge, as he was in any case almost done, and help out at the Bar-Mitzvah party, because they were desperate. Obviously David walked in late to the Bar-Mitzvah and when the guests saw this, not knowing the reason he’d come late, some began to talk negatively about David. "How can he come so late to the Bar-Mitzvah...that's very irresponsible of him...I would never use him for any of my parties!" Of course the real truth was that he was doing the family a big favor by helping out these desperate people when their photographer didn't show up! That episode had a very negative effect on David's livelihood until the truth finally surfaced. We have to watch what we say and learn to give people the benefit of the doubt!
I want to end with a parable about a man who spoke Lashon Hara all his life. Towards the end of his life, he asked the Rabbi if there was a way for him to make Teshuva. The Rabbi told him to take a feather pillow to the top of the empire state building, rip it open, and let all the feathers fly out all over the streets into the wind. The man did as he was told. He then reported to the Rabbi and asked, "Is that it?" The Rabbi said,"Oh, I forgot to mention – now that you’ve scattered the feathers into the wind and all over the streets, you must go and pick them all up!" The man protested, “That's impossible!” The Rabbi answered, "That's exactly what Teshuvah is for Lashon Hara – impossible." The scattering of feathers is a simile, for the scattering of negative speech and for all the damage a person scatters at the same time. People who engage in Lashon Hara have no control over the effects of their words. They do not know where the words will land, they can’t track the progress of the negative words and they don’t know what damage the words have done or whose reputation or happiness they have destroyed. Lashon Hara spreads out in many directions which the original speaker can’t foresee or know. And, most importantly, once you let out the negative speech, it is impossible to take it back or unsay what you have said, and thus you cannot make amends for all the damage you have done!
Speech reveals our inner being and reflects who we are. Let us appreciate the gift of speech and use it wisely! There's a prayer that we can say that will help protect us from speaking or hearing
"Master of the World, may it be Your will, compassionate and gracious G-d, that You grant me the merit today and every day to guard my mouth and tongue from speaking Lashon Hara and Rechilut. May I be zealous not to speak ill of an individual, and certainly not of the Jewish people or a portion of it; and even more so, may I be zealous not to complain about the ways of the Holy One, Blessed be He. May I be zealous not to speak words of falsehood, flattery, strife, anger, arrogance, hurt, humiliation, mockery and all other forbidden forms of speech. Grant me the merit to speak only that which is necessary for my physical and spiritual well-being, and may all my deeds and words be for the sake of Heaven.”
May we all be as careful with the words that come out of our mouths as we are with the foods that go into our mouths. Words can be very dangerous, they can break up families and cause irrevocable harm! May we all strive to cast a good eye on others and to avoid speaking Lashon Hara, and thus protect all of K'lal Yisrael from the severe penalties that come from speaking ill of our fellow Jews! Amen!
Shabbat Shalom! Jack E. Rahmey with the Guidance and Teachings of Rabbi Amram Sananes
Eliyahu Ben Rachel Avraham Ben Garaz
Sarah Bat Chanah Malka Bat Garaz
Shulamit Bat Helaina Yaakov Ben Rachel
Batsheva Bat Sarah Esther Rabbi Shimon Chay Ben Yaasher
Rav Haim Ben Rivka Meir Ben Latifa
Yitzchak Ben Adele Esther Bat Sarah
Chanah Bat Esther Rabbi Meyer Ben Chana
Moshe Ben Garaz Rafael ben Miriam
Moshe Ben Mazal