Leviticus 12 – 13
The use of words as weapons by those seeking to inflict pain is as old as mankind and has taken various forms throughout history. The new version is called cyber-bullying and tragically, several teenagers have committed suicide because of it.
Judaism describes this kind of behavior as lashon hara, evil speech, speech about people that is negative and derogatory. It means, quite simply, speaking badly about people, and is considered part of the biblical prohibition against spreading gossip.
Jewish Sages have called it one of the worst of all sins and compared it to the three cardinal sins – idolatry, murder and incest – combined. Why? Because, they said, it ‘kills’ three people, the one who says it, the one he says it about, and the one who listens to it.
The connection with this week’s Torah reading is easily made. Tazria is about a condition called tsara’at, sometimes translated as leprosy. Judaism has taught that it was a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech.
The story of Miriam (Numbers 12:1) who spoke negatively about her brother Moses “because of the Ethiopian wife he had taken” provides the basis for this teaching. God himself defended Moses’ honor and as a punishment, turned Miriam leprous. Moses prayed for God to heal her. God mitigated the punishment to seven days, but did not annul it entirely.
Clearly this was no small matter, because Moses singles it out among the teachings he gives the next generation: “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 24:9).
Why is the Torah so severe about lashon hara, branding it as one of the worst of sins?
God created the universe by words: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” God reveals Himself in words. He spoke to the patriarchs and the prophets and at Mount Sinai to the whole nation. Our very humanity has to do with our ability to use language. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). One translation renders the last phrase as “and the man became a speaking being.” Language is life. Words are meant to be creative rather than destructive. If good words are holy then evil words are a desecration.
Despite everything, however – despite the Torah’s prohibition of gossip, despite its stories about Joseph, Moses, Miriam and the spies, despite the unparalleled prohibition against evil speech by the sages – lashon hara remained a problem throughout Jewish history and still does today.
Every one of us has to confront the issue of lashon hara. Firstly we may have to put up with it as the price of any kind of achievement. Some people are envious. They gossip. They build themselves up by putting other people down. If you are in any kind of leadership position, you may have to live with the fact that behind your back – or even before your face – people will be critical, malicious, disdainful, vilifying and sometimes downright dishonest. This can be hard to handle. Not all people in the public eye have a thick skin. Many of them are very sensitive and can find constant, unjust criticism deeply painful and stressful.
Maimonides wrote: “If a person is scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving them, not responding even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain … such a person has sanctified God and about him Scripture says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified (Isaiah 49:3).”
Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group or community. Within the group it sows the seeds of distrust and jealousy. Directed towards others, it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to wholesome relationships and communities. It behooves each of us to have nothing to do with this kind of speech and allow it no place in our conversations.
Cyber-bullying is the latest manifestation of lashon hara. In general the Internet is the most effective distributor of hate-speech ever invented. Not only does it make targeted communication so easy, but it also bypasses the face-to-face encounter that can sometimes induce shame, sensitivity and self-control.
Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others.
People engage in lashon hara because they think they can get away with it. “It wasn’t me. I never said it. I didn’t mean it. I was misunderstood.” The Torah knows nothing of excuses. Malicious speech uttered in private is disciplined in public and those who engage in it are to be openly shamed.
In Tune with Torah this week = our words reveal our character. So do our actions, but this week we’re focusing on our speech. How are we doing? Listen to yourself for a few days or a week and take note of how many negative words, critical words, judgmental words or saracastic words you say. You might be surprised.
God believes better things of you. Those who control their tongue and refuse to speak negatively about others (even if the accusation is true) are men and women of the highest character and ultimately pleasing to Avinu Malkeinu, our Father and our King.