TAZRIA Leviticus/Vayikra 12 – 13
“Remember what the Lord, your God, did to Miriam on the way when you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 24:9)
Perhaps you find it curious that while this week’s Torah reading is in the book of Leviticus, I begin this commentary with a quote from Deuteronomy! There’s a reason for it!
Almost all of this week’s reading and part of next week’s deals with the complicated instructions regarding leprosy or ‘tzora’as’ in Hebrew. In biblical times, leprosy was the usual consequence for those who had spoken ‘loshon hora’ or evil speech about others. We find this emphasized in Parsha KiTetzei where the Torah warns us to be careful about the laws of leprosy and then follows that caution immediately with the words quoted above which remind us of Miriam’s punishment in the desert for speaking lashon hara against her brother, Moses. Miriam was immediately afflicted with tzora’as and forced to leave the encampment for seven days.
During the entire time Miriam was thus afflicted, the nation did not travel. The entire nation had to wait for her.
The command to remember Miriam is that all of us learn the devastating effect of ‘loshon hora’, even if spoken unintentionally or thoughtlessly without pre-meditated malice. Just as it makes no difference if you were to swallow poison intentionally or unintentionally, you would still suffer and possibly die. So, too, speaking negatively about others devastates us, even when spoken without deliberate malice.
The power of speech distinguishes man from all other creatures. The ability to speak words enables man to fulfill his purpose in the universe. Through speech man attaches himself to his Creator through prayer and learning the sacred scriptures. Through speech man is able to communicate his thoughts, which in turn leads to action. And it is speech that enables man to communicate with others in order to be a positive influence in society. When man uses his unique power of speech in the service of God, he realizes his potential as the pinnacle of Creation.
Using our tongue to speak evil of someone else, to degrade, to defile, to cause strife and dissension, divests man of the very essence of his distinction as a human being. Man was created in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ Speaking loshon hora defiles that very principle.
The Jerusalem Talmud says that there are three sins for which a person is punished in this world and in the next – immorality, murder and idolatry – and lashon hara is equal to all three.
At the conclusion of the Amidah prayer in the Jewish Siddur (prayer book) we say: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” Knowing how easily man is prone to criticize, slander and degrade his fellowman, the compilers of the Siddur included this petition intentionally so that we might be reminded each day to guard our speech.
King Solomon echoed this principle in the well known proverb: ‘Life and death are in the power of the tongue.’ Mishle/Proverbs 18:21 The principle is true not just for the one spoken about, but even more so, for the one doing the speaking. Spiritual life is nourished each time positive and uplifting words come out of your mouth. Likewise, our spiritual life is diminished with every negative and critical word we speak about others.
In bible times, evil speech received a swift and visible punishment. I pause and ask myself, ‘How would I have fared if I lived back then?’ I shudder at the thought. How about you?
In Tune with Torah this week = it behooves all of us to meditate intently on this very serious issue and resolve to work at cleaning up our speech, particularly any speech related to our comments and judgments towards others. And by the way, keep in mind that what we do to others comes back around to us. The critical person gets criticized; the slanderer becomes the victim of slander and so on.
May God help us to bring our tongues under control that they might be instruments only of blessing.