A Loss for Words| June 1, 2021
How an elevated society preserves its integrity and spiritual health
How would we manage in such a spiritually sensitive utopian society that any utterance of a compromised nature would make our skin turn white and force us into isolation?
The drama in this week’s parshah is startling: All 600,00 souls who left Mitzrayim are condemned to die in the wilderness. Only their children will be permitted to enter the Promised Land. Their crime? They accepted the lashon hara of the Spies about Eretz Yisrael.
At the end of the previous parshah, B’haalosecha, the Torah relates that Miriam, sister of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, is afflicted with tzaraas, which turns her skin snow-white. This is her punishment for speaking lashon hara about her brother Moshe. It’s a cautionary tale in itself, but in addition, the Torah commands all subsequent generations to remember this occurrence every day of our lives, just as we are commanded to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim, Shabbos, and Maamad Har Sinai.
Chazal say that these two parshiyos come one after the other because they both deal with the sin of lashon hara. In fact, the warning first appears in the parshiyos of Tazria and Metzora, where the punishment of tzaraas and its halachos are detailed. Although today these concepts are almost too rarefied for us to grasp, we can still try to understand the message.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re traveling to a utopian land, something like the spiritual lost city of Atlantis, where we encounter a civilization with a central concept called tzaraas that functions as a warning signal of great influence.
Tzaraas, as we know, was a kind of rash that broke out on the skin of a Jew who spoke lashon hara. This was the conclusion drawn by Chazal from the data provided in the parshah:
“Rabi Yosei ben Zimra said, whoever speaks lashon hara, afflictions come upon him…. Reish Lakish said, what is the meaning of the verse, ‘This will be the law of the metzora’? This will be the law of one who is motzi shem ra.” (Arachin 15b)
Reish Lakish highlights the essential connection between sins of the tongue and the appearance of tzaraas on the sinner’s body. Clearly, tzara’as has nothing to do with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, despite centuries of mistranslation. It is a physical sign of an entirely spiritual ailment, and only in a society of very elevated people with an instinct to purge any sort of moral corruption could there be such an instantaneous physical reaction to a sin.
A fanatical society indeed, that pays such strict attention to the words issuing from its citizens’ mouths. A culture that constantly reminds its faithful adherents that speech forms a person’s essence. A society in which a clean mouth indicates a pure, refined soul, with a healthy ecosystem between the mind that thinks, the mouth that expresses, and the senses that absorb, integrating speech into the fibers of the speaker’s soul.
And if a tongue should go astray in this utopian society, it gets quick, intensive care. A spiritual super drug.
HERE, THERE IS NO LENIENCY for one who speaks ill of his neighbor. There is no democratic right to let one’s mouth run wild, spreading evil reports about others and instigating quarrels (always in the name of truth and justice, of course). Their newspapers must have been boring. There were no gossip columns, and no one made a living out of intruding on the privacy of others. This society wanted its spiritual air unpolluted, and it understood that the tongue holds the key to life and death.
“Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi said, the word ‘Torah’ appears five times in connection to the metzorah: ‘This is the Torah of the affliction of tzaraas’; ‘This will be the Torah of the metzorah’…. To teach you that he who speaks lashon hara violates the Five Books of the Torah.” (Vayikra Rabbah 16:6)
Why does Rabi Yehoshua speak of violating “the Five Books of the Torah,” instead of using the usual expression “kol haTorah kulah, the entire Torah”?
Rabi Yehoshua wanted to stress that someone who gossips about his fellowman commits an offense against the very core of each of the five Chumashim separately. By shooting others in the back with the arrows of his tongue, he demonstrates that he doesn’t know how to read, that he doesn’t comprehend the content, that he did not take away a lesson from these books, and that he has no sense of responsibility toward society.
The gossiper, says the Midrash, ignores the story of the serpent in Sefer Bereishis. In the first narrative of the Tanach, the tragedy of Adam Harishon’s expulsion takes place — and it was caused by lashon hara: “For G-d knows that the on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods” (Bereishis 3:5). Thus the serpent pushed humanity into the arms of sin, suffering, and death for all generations. And our gossiper apparently forgot what happened to Yosef when he brought an evil report about his brothers, how he was hated and sold into Egypt, while his father sank into deep mourning.
Sefer Shemos, too, says the Midrash, warns us strictly against evil speech, in the story of the “leak” that forced Moshe to flee from Pharaoh’s avenging sword, when Dasan and Aviram spread the word about the identity of the man who slew the Egyptian.
A person who speaks lashon hara also offends against Sefer Vayikra, where many pesukim explicitly prohibit misuse of the tongue, such as, “You shall not go peddling gossip among your people” (19:16).
As for Sefer Bamidbar, this very week’s parshah tells the story of the Meraglim, the tragedy that held an entire generation back from entering the slandered Land of Israel. And in the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, we are enjoined to remember the punishment of Miriam by tzaraas for speaking improperly about her brother.
And with such destructive power of the tongue, the punishment fits the crime:
“All the days the affliction is upon him, which has made him unclean, he is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Vayikra 13:46).
“He shall dwell isolated.” He may not sit even with others who have become tamei. He remains isolated because he himself disrupted relationships, as Chazal say, “In what respect is he different from others who are tamei, that he must sit alone? Since he separated a man from his wife and a man from his fellowman, he, too, shall be separate.” (Rashi)
THIS IS HOW AN ELEVATED SOCIETY preserves its integrity and spiritual health: It takes the gossipmonger, who put a wedge into relationships and picked holes in the fabric of society, and sends him away to sit alone, outside the camp — and in that unbearable solitude, he can come to appreciate the value of society. Let him realize how much he needs it. Perhaps then he will comprehend the gravity of his sin.
Yet even after his period of isolation, his rehabilitation is not yet complete. After the tzaraas has disappeared, he must perform acts of atonement that will bring him to greater self-awareness.
“And the person to be cleansed shall take two live birds… and a stick of cedar, a strip of crimson wool, and hyssop…” (ibid 14:4).
“Live birds” — because tzaraas comes as a result of evil speech, which is an act of chattering, and therefore he is required to bring birds, which twitter constantly.
“And a stick of cedar” — because tzaraas comes as a result of haughtiness [symbolized by the towering cedar tree].
“A strip of crimson wool, and hyssop” — in order that he come down from his haughtiness like the worm [which produces the crimson dye] and like the [lowly] hyssop plant.
Before he returns to the camp and to society, his korban impresses upon him that the root of his sin is arrogance, a feeling of disdain toward others which allowed him to speak badly of them. Let him bring the lowly hyssop, then, and the crimson wool from the worm, as a reminder that a little humility would go a long way toward giving him a healthier attitude toward others and toward society as a whole.
And so it was in that strange, faraway land — a world that seems so foreign to this “advanced” generation, with our sophisticated mass communication. Are we ready to make the trip?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 863)
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