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Tazria-Metzora Power of Speech

Written by Rabbi Andrew Savage

This week’s double parsha deals almost exclusively with a leprosy-like skin disease which would afflict those who were guilty of lashon hara, literally ‘evil speech.’ Following diagnosis by a Cohen, the afflicted would then undergo a process of total isolation before being re-examined seven days later and, if given the all clear, would then be readmitted into society having brought the appropriated korbanos (offerings.)

This lengthy process, as well as the sheer length of explanation the Torah dedicates to it, demonstrates clearly that lashon hara is not just another ‘don’t’ but something far more fundamentally crucial than other positive and negative mitzvos. The Talmud compares the severity of lashon hara with that of the three prohibitions – idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relationships – which a Jew is obligated to give his life for rather than transgress. Along the same lines, someone who speaks lashon hara is compared to a snake (which in Torah terminology is not a compliment!), and also compared to a heretic who denies the very Divinity of Torah[1].

This all seems a bit harsh; lashon hara is not simply an issue of spreading false information about someone, but includes unnecessarily[2] speaking negatively about someone even when the content is totally true. Unnecessarily referring to someone’s lack of intelligence, friendliness or character traits is, in the eyes of the Torah, somehow comparable to murder!

Every functioning society needs laws to protect its members; that slander is against the rules is no real surprise. But the severity with which Judaism treats all forms of negative speech, even if true, is truly unique. What is it about derogatory speech that renders it so antithetical to Jewish values, and accounts for the extensive focus given to lashon hara in the Written and Oral Torah[3]?

Man is the focal point of all of Creation. Every other created entity is essentially a means to provide humanity with the necessary environment and tools within which to function effectively, and achieve our individual and collective purpose.

What is the differentiating factor that makes human beings a more exalted creation than any other? Only human beings have the ability to communicate ideas and emotions of such subtlety and complexity[4]. The power of communication, primarily through speech[5], is our greatest tool and is the basis of all human relationships, both with each other and with G-d, through prayer.

In light of this, it is understandable that the misuse of our most precious gift – the power of speech – is such a serious matter in Torah thought. But even so, one may reasonably ask, is the mere mention of someone’s weaknesses or faults such a serious misuse of the power of speech? Whilst generating mass hatred through inflammatory speeches is clearly understood to be a dangerous use of ones’ oratory skills, can the same really be said of spreading a bit of ‘harmless’ gossip about the next door neighbour?

The essence of the underlying problem of lashon hara is expressed through a famous parable. A teacher whilst accompanied by his students came across a rotting carcass that had been left by the side of the street. Passing the carcass, one of the students commented on the foul smelling odours being produced by this dead animal. The teacher turned to his student and asked him; “But didn’t you notice the fresh whiteness of the carcasses teeth?” This story seems a strange basis for expressing a fundamental moral message; the students (accurate) comment did not cause any offence, and ostensibly harms no-one. And what is the teacher trying to communicate through drawing the students attention to the whiteness of the teeth? Can’t he also smell the odours coming from the rotting carcass?

There is no such thing as a perfect situation. In any situation one may find oneself in there are positives and negatives. Likewise no person is perfect. Every one of us has our own set of weaknesses which give rise to our unique set of challenges in life. Inevitably we don’t always meet those challenges and will, as a result, sometimes make mistakes often upsetting others in the process.

When we look at other people and the world around us, we can choose either to focus on the positive attributes of any situation or person, or the negatives. This is our choice, and that choice indicates our mindset and guides how we interact with people and our environment. To opt for the negative, to see the cup half full or the foul smelling carcass, is a fundamentally incorrect way of viewing and interacting with the world around us.

The severity with which the Torah views lashon hara reflects the importance of approaching life with a positive mindset and using speech, our most precious tool as human beings, to express and develop that mindset.



[1] See TB Arachin 15-16 2 At times it is considered objectively necessary, and therefore not included in the definition of lashon hara, to pass on negative information about someone. If for example, an ignorant shopkeeper is about to employ a proven thief, one is permitted, and sometimes obligated, to pass on the information to save the potential victim. 3 For example, the Chofetz Chaim, the leading contributor to halachic literature of the 20th century, devoted an entire 19 chapter book to the issue of lashon hara. 4 Genesis 2.8. Also see Rashi. 5 Speech is not the only method of communication. Communicating derogatory messages though body language is also included within the definition of lashon hara.

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