TOUCH AND GO
Rabbi David Zauderer
The Talmud teaches us that one of the worst sins is to speak lashon harah-slander against one's fellow man. It is considered a sin on the level of idolatry, illicit sexual relationships, and murder.
The Talmud teaches us that one of the worst sins is to speak lashon harah-slander against one's fellow man. It is considered a sin on the level of idolatry, illicit sexual relationships, and murder. The Chofetz Chaim, a foremost leader of Torah Jewry at the turn of the 20th century, wrote an entire book devoted to the intricate laws and complexities of lashon harah. In this book, the Chofetz Chaim writes that one who speaks lashon harah has violated the negative commandment not to profane G-d's name because he has committed a sin without deriving any benefit from it. One who sins due to temptation at least has a motive, whereas one who speaks slanderously against his friend does so with nothing to gain and everything to lose-and such a person has shown great disregard for G-d and His Torah, causing G-d's name to be profaned.
The idea that one who speaks lashon harah has no benefit or pleasure from his words is difficult to understand. After all, if you share some juicy gossip with your friend about someone else behind their back, you're obviously enjoying it tremendously-otherwise you wouldn't be doing it. What then does the Chofetz Chaim mean when he says that one who speaks lashon harah does not gain any benefit from his sin?
The Torah teaches us in this week's portion the laws of tzaraat. For many years, the popular translation of tzaraat has been leprosy, and it was commonly accepted that prevention of the disease's spread was the reason for the quarantine of the suspected victim of tzaraat.
The sages, however, teach us otherwise. Tzaraat is not a bodily disease; rather it is the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment designed to show the sinner that he must mend his ways. The primary cause of tzaraat is the sin of lashon harah. This is why Miriam, when she spoke against her brother, was afflicted with tzaraat (see Numbers 12:10).
The Torah states, "All the days that the affliction is upon him he shall remain contaminated; he is contaminated. He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (Leviticus 13: 46). Our sages teach us that any punishment sent by G-d to man is not for the sake of vengeance, but rather to remind the person of his sin thereby causing him to repent. Therefore, the punishment has to fit the crime. If so, what could be the rationale for sending out the one afflicted with tzaraat to live in isolation and how does that fit the crime of speaking lashon harah?
If we were to psychoanalyze a person who constantly speaks lashon harah and disparages others, we would find that on the whole, the main reason for this behavior is a lack of self-worth and self-esteem. My grandfather told me many years ago that there are two ways to become "great"-either the fake way by lowering and knocking everyone around us, or the real way by realizing our own potential and actualizing it through great deeds. A person who has true self-esteem doesn't need to put others down in order to feel important. Only an insecure person who measures his worth through others' eyes, has to resort to lashon harah to elevate" himself and to feel good about himself.
But, ultimately, speaking badly about another human being doesn't make us feel any better. Even such a negative trait as anger can provide at least some psychological benefit for the person who explodes in a fit of rage, as it might serve to remove some of the pent-up hostility within his heart. When we knock another human being, we try to feel greater by making our victim weaker, but the reality is that we don't feel any better and all that we have gained is the sin of lashon harah. And a sin for no good reason profanes G-d and the Torah.
The reason why the person afflicted with tzaraat as a punishment for speaking lashon harah is sent to live in isolation away from the public eye could be for him to reflect on his own self-worth and self-esteem. The commentaries explain that the person is isolated for a period of seven days so that he should reflect on the idea that the entire world, which was created in seven days, was created just for him. Let the sinner realize that he doesn't need to become "great" the cheap way. The potential for greatness is already there inside him and inside each and every one of us and all we need to do is to bring it out.
Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.
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