In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to a number of mitzvot that, at first blush, seem to be about physical illness. These maladies render a person spiritually impure – Tamei – and thereby preclude him or her 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 today.
Even though this was a supernatural occurrence, the idea that 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 become sick, 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 in our physical state. An anxious 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 ofמידה כנגד מידה “measure for measure”. Which is another way of saying poetic justice, Karma, or “what goes around comes around.” The way it works is that, whether you like it or not, you are part and parcel of your world-view, especially the behavior and attitude that you have for others based on that world-view. There’s no escaping it. The way you view and treat others comes around full circle and ends up back on your own head since it’s impossible to remove yourself from the lens through which you see life.
So for instance, if a person is very selfish and only thinks of themselves and does everything they can – immoral or otherwise – for their own gain, then that person cannot help but think that others operate in the same manner. If one is always out to take advantage of others, one will assume that others are out to do the same to him. This is their world-view and they are locked into it and subjected to it.
On the other hand, if someone is a loving, giving and a generally positive personality, then that person knows that others will act in a positive and loving way, or at least have the potential to do so given the right opportunity. Positive people have a knack of pulling the upbeat, optimistic parts out of another since this is the energy they give off which is contagious.
The bottom line is that you cannot divorce and disassociate yourself from your view of others. How you see the world and other people is really a window into how you see yourself.
Taking this a step further, 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, context and humanity of that person. Lashon Hara is when one views and speaks of another in a limited, and thereby distorted, perspective. 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, good parts of another.
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 it is really 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 disparagingly 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 since our system is now 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. If we are willing to extend to ourselves patience for these failings, issue and imperfections, so too we will readily extend patience to others as well. They might not have the same battles as our own but it doesn’t warrant us to belittle them for it. Just as we would want another to cut us some slack for our failings and accept us for who we are – warts and all – and not go about blabbing to the world about our faults, so too we should do the same for others and 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.
Healthy Living indeed starts with the mouth. Not only with what goes into our mouths, but also with what comes out of our mouths. Our words 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. Our health and the health of others depends on it.