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TWISTED TONGUE

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Over the past two weeks, the Torah has discussed in detail the complicated processes for declaring a person to be a metzorah (one inflicted with the dreaded ailment of tzaraat, that spiritual malady which resembles leprosy), complete with his purification and atonement ritual.

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Over the past two weeks, the Torah has discussed in detail the complicated processes for declaring a person to be a metzorah (one inflicted with the dreaded ailment of tzaraat, that spiritual malady which resembles leprosy), complete with his purification and atonement ritual. Primarily serving as a punishment/wake-up call for someone who speaks lashon harah (evil speech or slander), tzaraat forces the person to be separated from the community for an extended period of time. He receives a similar fate as to that suffered by the unfortunate subject of the lashon harah who has been defamed as a result of his neighbor's flapping tongue. Hence, the speaker has been provided with the perfect stimulus towards teshuva, repentance, as he has now experienced something similar to the evil which he has caused. In turn, the gossiper's punishment provides a clear example to the rest of the community of what not to do.

While lashon harah carries a harsh punishment which may be effective for some, others may also be inspired by the knowledge that there is an extremely positive reward granted to one who refrains from speaking lashon harah. The Midrash relates a story that there once was a merchant traveling from city to city who would announce, "Who would like to purchase a potion for long life?" Rebbe Yanai, a great rabbi in the time of the Talmud, heard the announcement and wanted to buy the elixir. The merchant responded to him that such a potion for long life was not necessary for Rebbe Yanai. The merchant proceeded to take out the book of Tehillim (Psalms), showing him the following verse (from the Shabbat morning prayers): "Who is the man who desires life. . .? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit" (34:13-14).

Reb Yaakov Krantz, the famous 18th century magid from the town of Dubno, explains that Rebbe Yanai had thought that the reward for not speaking lashon harah could be found only in the World to Come, therefore necessitating the discovery of a "life-giving potion" for this world as well. Hence, the merchant showed Rebbe Yanai the verse, teaching him that refraining from lashon harah provides a cure to a person even in this world. Furthermore, rather than simply manifesting itself within the person who avoids speaking lashon harah, it also has a tremendously positive effect on the rest of the world, limiting strife between friends and insuring peace. Since Rebbe Yanai was already careful in the laws of lashon harah, it was unnecessary for him to seek any other life-giving potion.

Often, we assume that the mitzvah of not speaking lashon harah applies exclusively to the most holy members of society, or those "unfortunate" people who do not have any exciting stories or gossip to spread around anyway. We reason that if this prohibition applied to us, we would have nothing to talk about, isolating ourselves from our circle of friends and thereby causing life to diminish in value. This could not be further from the truth, as it is the one who speaks lashon harah who is in fact isolated from his friends by the ailment of tzaraat and who brings destruction into the world. Only he who is capable of controlling his tongue is considered to be one who desires life and will ultimately achieve happiness.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York.

You are invited to read more Parshat Tazria & Metzora articles.

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