Parsha Metzora: Bad Words, Bad Breath
You’re so far from wanting to say something good
Feel something good
Somebody asked me what hell was like…
Parting of souls
-Belle and Sebastian
This week’s Torah portion has laws related to Tsara’at which is often mistranslated as Leprosy. Tsara’at was a unique biblical phenomenon whereby a person would contract an illness because of spiritual failings. It was a miraculous event that went the way of prophecy and other super-natural happenings in Jewish history. We just don’t have these in our day and age.
Although Talmudic tradition says that Tsara’at could result from a number of different reasons, the one that seems to get the most play is that it was a reaction to Lashon Hara – speaking negatively of another.
The prohibition of Lashon Hara is a very difficult one to keep as it applies even if the talk about another happens to be absolutely true. Defamation of character – where one spreads false libelous untruths about another – is a completely different and separate prohibition. But Lashon Hara is when one speaks of the factual failings of another, and when it is done for no particular reason or purpose other than the mere degradation of that person.
When this happened, the gossipy perpetrator would suffer from Tsara’at and get a skin disease. The disease was not a medical condition per se and the local dermatologist was not called to cure the afflicted. Instead it was spiritual in nature and the Kohanim, the priests were the ones who oversaw the healing process.
The most difficult part of Tsara’at is that it forced one to be quarantined and kept away from others. This was not Covid-like and this disease was not contagious. When one had Tsara’at, Jewish law demanded that they be holed up and separated from all other people including friends and relatives.
The uniqueness of this Lashon Hara/Tsara’at cause-and-effect is that we seldom see this sort of thing anywhere else in Jewish tradition. While it’s true that the Torah is clear and explicit in showing us a relationship between sin and punishment, it only does so on a national level. A number of times we hear of grave warnings of repercussions if we do not obey God’s commandments. But it is a very different story when it comes to sins on a personal level. Here we have a much harder time drawing a straight line between sin and punishment or, conversely, mitzvah and reward. The Torah generally avoids, “If you do x mitzvah and you will see y reward, or if you do x sin you will see y punishment”. Yet the one time Jewish tradition feels very comfortable to note a direct connection between the two is with Tsara’at stemming from Lashon Hara.
Let’s face it, when it comes to speaking ill of another, you can literally spend your entire life doing so. You can even make it a full time job, and some low-lives in our society have done just that. This is because of a very simple fact: Everyone has faults. Yup, even you and me. There is no such thing as a perfect person and every one of us has struggles, failings, imperfections, makes mistakes and has done dumb stuff. This is human nature. No one is God and therefore each and every one of us, bar none, has ample material to provide another to speak Lashon Hara.
And perhaps the reason that the one time the Torah makes a direct correlation between sin and punishment with Lashon Hara is because it’s the one sin where we are witness to this happening in real time in life.
When one engages in negative speech, the punishment of being ostracized and finding themselves very alone is indeed the natural outcome and result. A person who regularly dwells on the faults of others quickly develops a reputation for this behavior and habit. As such, people lose their trust to confide in this person, share with them anything personal or even wish to spend time with them. We avoid these types because we are fully aware of the impossibility to live up to the standards and the scrutiny that the Lashon Hara specialist demands.
The negative personality is a lonely one as these folks naturally push aside understanding and accepting people and end up finding themselves surrounded by similar-minded negative people who will reinforce their outlook and hence disease. A leper colony of sorts.
On the other hand, those who appreciate that we all have our issues and don’t constantly focus and speak of the failings of others – these people will always be surrounded by the warmth and love of others. People who learn to keep quiet about another’s weaknesses – which is not to say they do not see them – become trusted, loved and develop a natural grace, charm and likability. They have a life surrounded by many loved ones because they are considerate, sensitive people who are not looking to build themselves up by knocking others down.
And so of all the mitzvot in the Torah, derogatory speech may have the most immediate and palpable effect on one’s reputation and hence relationships with others. And while we may not have the miraculous manifestation of this disease today, we still have its powerful and real expressions in our everyday life. Tsara’at is here and it is now. You may not see it on your skin, but you will see it in the way people will avoid you like the plague.
We may all be guilty of Lashon Hara at some time or another. But its remedy, Lashon Tov – speaking good of another with sincerity, respect and care – is readily at hand. No matter how much we may be suffering from the ill-effects of speaking Lashon Hara, its cure is ever present and as easy as focusing on the good that we see in others. That and letting them, and everyone else, know about it.
Every person that you despised is forgiven