How to Stay Healthy
Staying healthy is on everyone’s minds these days. I am not here to offer a miracle solution to our present day circumstance, but there is an important lesson on staying healthy related to this week’s Torah reading.
In it we are introduced to a number of mitzvot that, at first blush, seem to be speaking about physical illness. These maladies render a person spiritually impure – Tamei – and thereby preclude him from participating in the Temple services. Tzaraas, often erroneously translated as Leprosy, was an affliction that struck an individual who had a spiritual or moral lapse. It was a miraculous occurrence and something that we no longer have in our day and age.
Nevertheless, the notion of physical illness as it relates to psychological or spiritual imbalance is not necessarily a miraculous one when you think about it. All of us have experienced illness, not from anything that we have eaten or a virus that we may have caught, but as a result of nervousness, anxiety and stress. Our mind affects our body, and what we think and feel certainly expresses itself physically. A worried person looks, acts and feels drastically different than someone who is relaxed and peaceful.
The Talmud states that the main reason that someone would contract Tzaraas is from speaking disparagingly of another. We call this Lashon Hara, which literally means evil speech and is forbidden even if the negative information about the other is true.
This punishment of Tzaraas operates under the principal of מידה כנגד מידה “measure for measure”, poetic justice, Karma, “what goes around comes around” or however you wish to call it. And the way it works is that, whether you like it or not, you are part and parcel of your world-view and the behavior and attitude that you have for others. There is no escaping it. The way you see others comes around full circle and ends up back on your own head since you cannot remove yourself from the lens through which you view life.
If you are selfish, you assume the world is similarly selfish, and that others are trying to take advantage of you in the same fashion that you act and feel about them. If you are a loving and positive person, you know that others really behave in a positive and loving way, or at least have the potential to do so. Positive people have a knack of pulling the upbeat, optimistic parts out of another. The bottom line is that you cannot divorce and disassociate yourself from your view of others. How you see them is really a window into how you see yourself.
The primary problem in speaking Lashon Hara is that it presents an unbalanced picture of another. By highlighting and focusing on a negative snapshot of another’s life, one completely ignores the overall situation, circumstance and context of the person. It is expressing a limited, and thereby distorted, perspective of another. In essence, Lashon Hara happens when one focuses only on what is “sick” in another, completely ignoring the context of the “illness” as well as the healthy parts of that person.
Just as we become ill when we do not or cannot take care of our physical needs, so too we can become ill when we do not, or cannot find the right balance – morally and spiritually – within ourselves. One of the greatest challenges in life is constantly monitoring oneself to ensure that life has the proper equilibrium in all areas. When we start to go too much to one way or another, things begin to go awry and this imbalance creates illness both physically and spiritually. The great Jewish philosopher and codifier, Maimonides summed it up by stating:
The overall and general (rule of behavior) is that a person should walk in the middle path of each and every character trait until all of them are directed and set in the middle path.
-Maimonides, Laws of Character Traits 2:7
When we speak Lashon Hara, viewing others and speaking of them in a distorted fashion, it is an expression of the imbalance in our own lives. Focusing on the ill characteristics of another comes back to haunt us as we cannot but take a similar view of ourselves as well. The more we speak negatively of others and focus on their moral failings, the more we reinforce a distorted and sick view of ourselves. This downward spiral of moral/spiritual imbalance and sickness continues until we become physically ill – an expression of our system being out of whack.
On the other hand, when we reach a true sense of balance in our lives, achieving an inner peace, joy and overall acceptance of self, then we are better suited to give others the benefit of the doubt as well. How we view them is a mirror and reflection of how we view ourselves. We know all too well that we have failings, issues and are not perfect, but that’s ok because nobody is. And so the patience that we are willing to give ourselves we readily extend to others for their failings, issues and imperfections. They might not have the same battles as our own but it doesn’t warrant us to belittle them for it. And just as we would want another to cut us some slack; when we have a basic acceptance of ourselves, warts and all, we are better equipped to accept the imperfections of another and not speak negatively about them.
If we can attain this attitude and perspective in our lives, then not only will we not speak evil about another’s ills but, instead, we will try to heal them with words of comfort, support and encouragement. We thereby heal ourselves at the very same time because “what goes around comes around” works both ways – creating illness, and creating healing as well.
With our tongue and words we can cause much destruction and sickness in our world and in our own lives. On the other hand, if we choose positive and uplifting speech, we can create much good and healing – for others and for ourselves.
As we see everyone walking about with masks covering their mouths, maybe the lesson is that we need to make a greater effort to cover our mouths and not let destructive words of Lashon Hara come out of them.