Come, my children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:12-14)
April 24 is Shabbat Parashat Tazria-Metzora with the Torah text found in Sefer Vayikra 12:1 to 15:33. One key teaching from this Torah portion concerns tzara’at or the disfiguring affliction on houses, garments and persons as a result of sin.
While our portion itself is not specific about what sin causes tzara’at, both Moses and Miriam suffered from tzara’at: Moses, when he disbelieved God’s ability to make the Israelites accept that he was their rightful leader (Exodus 4:6-7), and Miriam, when she spoke slanderously about Moses’ wife (Exodus 12:10). While neither undertook the exact methods of purification outlined in our Torah portion, our rabbis and sages drew from these examples that the cause of tzara’at is lashon ha-ra – evil language, speech or slander.
In addition to these examples, these commentators underscored their teaching with a play on words that took Metzora – the one who is afflicted with tzara’at – and reshaped the word into Motzi-ra – the one who brings out or emits evil. How does one “emit evil”? Through evil speech, they declared. And, thus, a Torah text, which Rashbam declared to be “beyond human knowledge” became a concrete teaching across the centuries.
When Rashbam comments on tzara’at, that its understanding is beyond human knowledge (see Nehama Leibowitz on these Torah portions), he is not giving us a “pass” to ignore the Torah, he is commanding us to seek out, and rely upon, our tradition and the teachings of generations of scholars.
For example, in rabbinic literature (as detailed in the “Encyclopedia Judaica”), are these Midrashic and Talmudic citations on punishments and repentances for those engaging in lashon ha-ra. We are no longer in the Torah world of tzara’at and priestly ministrations and sacrifices, but in the rabbinic world – namely, for the sin of lashon ha-ra:
• They are immediately chastised by plagues (Avot de Rabbi Natan 19).
• Rain is withheld because of them (Ta’an. 7b).
• Croup comes to the world on account of slander (Shab. 33a–b).
• Whoever makes derogatory remarks about deceased scholars is cast into Gehinnom (destination of the wicked) (Ber. 19a).
• Slanderers will not enjoy the Shekhinah (Divine Presence; Sot. 42a).
• A bearer of evil tales is considered as denying God (Ar. 15b).
• Whoever relates or accepts slander deserves to be cast to the dogs (Pes. 118a), and stoned (Ar. 15b).
The Talmud then delineates the repentance for those wishing to atone for this sin:
• Scholars were advised to engage in Torah study, while simple persons were urged to humble themselves (Ar. 15b).
• The robe of the high priest and the incense aided in achieving atonement for this sin (Zev. 88b).
• Mar, the son of Ravina, on concluding his daily prayer added the following: “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile” (Ber. 17a), a formula that has been added at the end of the Amidah.
In modern times, Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Kohen (Chofetz Chayyim – Desirer of Life – from our Psalm 34 citation; 1839-1933) gained wide recognition for his many books and writings, which stressed the gravity of the sin of lashon ha-ra.
For all of us, especially for our children and teens, there is much to learn, because lashon ha-ra is a great deal more than just what is conventionally considered gossip or “telling tales” about someone.
As Joseph Telushkin teaches in his “Book of Values,” “While libel and slander, which involve the transmission of untrue statements, are universally regarded as immoral and generally illegal, most people regard a negative but true statement made about another as morally permissible.
“Jewish law opposes this view. The fact that something is true doesn’t mean it is anybody else’s business. Lashon ha-ra refers to any statement that is true but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said.”
With these Jewish teachings in mind, we must reconsider what we are sending and receiving through our keyboards, screens and earbuds. Mightn’t a great deal of it be lashon ha-ra? How much of what appears on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or Twitter actually “lowers the status of the person about whom it is said”? And, even more: how much of what appears is actually fact?
This is a complex topic which is too often taught at the most rudimentary level – “how would you like it if someone said that about you” without going deeper and more fully into traditional Jewish teachings.
I commend to you the writings of the Chofetz Chayyim, easily introduced online in the “Ethics of Speech” class at torah.org.
When we bring ourselves to Torah and pray for the discernment to have our lives shaped by the truths Torah teaches, let us also pray those truths will bear fruit in our lives and will help heal our relationships and our world.
Kein yehi ratzon – thus may it be so. Shalom.
RABBI CANTOR ANNE HEATH (firstname.lastname@example.org), spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Achim and the Jewish Community House, a 105-year old progressive, independent congregation in Taunton, Mass., is a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.