By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
Last week and this week we’ve been reading in the Torah about an affliction called tzaraat, a mysterious disease that can affect human beings, clothing and even buildings. What this disease is and whether there is a modern equivalent are interesting to ponder, but what captured the imagination of the sages is not so much the specifics of the affliction or how those afflicted were treated by the kohanim (priests), but rather what brought on tzaraat in the first place. That is, rather than focus on the symptom of the disease, the sages focused on the underlying cause and its prevention.
In the rabbinic imagination, the cause of tzaraat is lashon ha-ra, evil or forbidden speech. How so? One afflicted with tzaraat is called a metzora, a term which the rabbis creatively read as “motzi ra” or bringing forth evil. By speaking evil of someone, the speaker becomes spiritually contaminated and, thus, brings the affliction of tzaraat upon him- or herself.
Lashon ha-ra can come in many forms. According to noted author and teacher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, lashon ha-ra (literally, “bad tongue”), refers to any statement that is true but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said.” It goes without saying, though, that slanderous statements that are untrue are also forbidden. In addition, whether the lashon ha-ra is spoken behind someone’s back or to his or her face, whether it is spoken publicly or privately is irrelevant. No matter how, when or where lashon ha-ra occurs, it is still extremely harmful.
One form of lashon ha-ra, publicly shaming someone, is considered lethal in the Talmud. The term for this sinful act, halbanat panim, literally causing a face to turn white, derives from Tractate Bava Metzia (58b): A disciple taught before Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak: “Anyone who publicly mortifies his companion is comparable to a shedder of blood.” He replied: “Your statement is correct, for the red color of the face disappears, and it becomes white.”
To illustrate this point, one of the great rabbis of the Talmud, Rava, relates King David’s response to his detractors who once shamed him: They mock me, saying, ‘David! What is the penalty for one who sleeps with a married woman?’ I reply to them, ‘He is executed by strangulation, yet he has a portion in the World to Come; but anyone who publicly mortifies his companion has no portion in the World to Come.’’(58b-59a)
In short, publicly shaming someone is akin to murder, a violation for which there can be no complete repentance because the victim is no longer alive to offer forgiveness. While publicly shaming someone (or a group of people) may be simply a powerful metaphor for shedding another’s blood, in truth, evil speech spoken publicly has too often throughout history led to deadly violence, even genocide. The Jewish people know this all too well. The Holocaust shows what can happen when lashon ha-ra is taken to an extreme. Fortunately, though, most violations of lashon ha-ra do not lead to such horrific results.
The sad reality, however, is that when it comes to lashon ha-ra none of us is innocent. Even when sharing damning information about someone is permitted, which it sometimes is, we very often lapse into exaggeration and embellishment and derive pleasure from it. In fact, Rabbi Telushkin likens the temptation of gossip to the temptation of pork to one who keeps kosher: about a rabbinic teaching on the latter, Rabbi Telushkin writes: They would do well to update the rabbinic quote (on the temptation to eat port) to read, “One should not say, ‘I do not like to gossip,’ but rather, ‘I really enjoy talking about and listening to the intimate details of other people’s lives, and discussing other people’s character flaws, but what can I do, since my Heavenly Father has forbidden it?'”
I think Rabbi Telushkin sums it up perfectly. We are all drawn both to speak and listen to lashon ha-ra, yet we know that rarely are we serving a purpose other than amusing ourselves or letting off steam. Most of us also have had the experience of having our talebearing come back to bite us one way or another, and we know firsthand the harm we do ourselves, not just the object of our ridicule. Refraining from gossip and slander is no easy task.
To prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of lashon ha-ra, therefore, we need to heed Rabbi Telushkin’s advice: acknowledge the temptation and then refuse to cross the line because God forbids it. Put differently, lashon ha-ra diminishes God’s creation and serves no sacred or humanitarian purpose and is, therefore, ethically and spiritually prohibited.
The annual cycle of Torah reading draws to our attention behaviors we want to avoid and behaviors we want to increase. Lashon ha-ra is surely something that we need to be reminded regularly to avoid. Whether we like reading about mysterious diseases or not, we should thank the rabbis for seeing within Tazria and Metzora this lesson about evil speech that we need to hear over and over again.