Parashah Ponderings

Not All Speech Is Free: The Price of Lashon Hara

Parashat Tazria-Metzora / פרשת תזריע־מצרע

Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

A popular folktale tells how a rabbi once cured a townsperson of his inclination toward slander and other forms of lashon hara, harmful speech. The rabbi advises the man to take a feather pillow into the town square and beat it with a broom until the pillow’s casing rips open and the feathers fly to and fro. The man follows the rabbi’s advice and watches as thousands of feathers fly away through the square and beyond. The man then goes back to the rabbi who tells him there’s just one more step to take to be cured of lashon hara once and for all: the man now has to go back to the square and collect up all the feathers. When the man realizes this would be impossible and protests, the rabbi explains that speech is like the feather pillow: once a word has been spoken, its effects are beyond the speaker’s control, and try as he may, there is no recapturing that speech.

This week’s Torah portion teaches a similar lesson about lashon hara, except here the lashon hara is punished by God with a mysterious scaly skin infliction called tzaraat, with the one who has tzaraat known as a metzora. The Torah directs the afflicted person to appear before a priest for diagnosis. If the person test “positive,” the “treatment” includes separation from the community until the skin clears up followed by an offering of two birds, one of which is to be slaughtered, the other of which is to be dipped in the blood of the slaughtered one. Why birds? The rabbis teach us that the chosen birds chirp and chatter just as the offender “chirped” and “chattered.” In a sense, the punishment fits the crime. The price to pay for lashon hara is minimally the cost of two birds, one killed, the other “humiliated” by the blood stains it must bear. In real life, lashon hara has the potential to embarrass and humiliate or, worse, to destroy lives, livelihoods and families.

The effects of tzaraat are not limited to individuals. Clothing and the walls of houses are also susceptible to tzaraat. What’s more, the method to rid fabric and homes of the disease is identical to the cure for humans in that the Torah here, too, prescribes the offering of two birds. The rabbis teach that the diseased clothing, which can be seen by the public, represents the communal impact of lashon hara. An ill word, whether true or not, spoken about one person may upset a whole community, dividing it into advocates and detractors of both the speaker and the one spoken about. Closer to home, so to speak, the words spoken have the potential to tear families apart. It’s as if the disease of one person mutates and covers the walls of his home and, perhaps, the walls of the one he or she has harmed. Thus, the Torah’s discussion of tzaraat suggests that the cost of lashon hara is born not just by the one who speaks it but by the speaker’s family and community, as well.

I recently spoke with a high school acquaintance who now teaches law. Recently, she inadvertently included a link in an email to her students that was intended for her eyes only. Word of her deed spread throughout the university, throughout the internet, and onto the major news outlets. Most reasonable people would see the professor’s mistake as simply unfortunate and embarrassing, but hardly malicious. Nonetheless, university policy required her to take a leave with pay while the administration undertook an investigation. In the meantime, the professor has suffered unbearable humiliation, though thankfully has enjoyed the full support of spouse and children despite suffering their own humiliation due to the attention brought upon them by the professor’s actions. If an embarrassing mistake can cause such chaos to family and a university community, imagine the effects of talebearing and truly malicious speech. As with the house afflicted with tzaraat, too often the proverbial walls must come down and be rebuilt before life can return to normalcy.

It is notable that both the story of the man who learned a lesson about speech and the Torah’s treatment of tzaraat each involve feathers, one in the form of the down stuffing of a pillow, the other in the form of the birds who provide them. When we fail to control our speech, we cause feathers to fly, blood to flow, the fabric of our being to become stained. Too often we ignore this high cost of our speech. We would be wise to heed the words of our rabbis: “Who is strong? The one who controls his/her impulses.” When it comes to speech, truer words could never be spoken.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

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