Most of this week’s double parsha deals with the affliction known as tzara’at, often translated as leprosy but not at all what we know today as Hansen’s disease.
The 16th-century Italian commentator, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, wrote: “The tzara’at lesions that the Torah lists as rendering a person tamei [ritually impure] have nothing in common with the leprous diseases known to medicine. Tzara’at is a supernaturally caused affliction imposed by God on man to punish him for a sin or to atone for a wicked deed.
While the Talmud mentions several sins that might bring on an attack of tzara’at, the best known is lashon hara, evil speech, which includes not only malicious gossip and spreading lies about people, but also speaking negative or derogatory truths about others.
Why do the rabbis make this connection? First, the word metzora, a person with tzara’at, sounds like the words motzi shem ra, one who spreads a false rumor. Second, we learn, in Bamidbar, that when Miriam and Aaron spoke against their brother Moses, Miriam was stricken with tzara’at until Moses prayed for her healing.
A hasidic rabbi pointed out that the Torah contains only a single commandment against eating pig, but everyone knows it is forbidden. Yet, while the Torah contains numerous commandments prohibiting evil speech and gossip, people behave as if they were unaware of that proscription.
That’s not hard to explain. After all, it’s not difficult to avoid eating pig. There are all sorts of wonderful things to eat and there’s no hardship involved. But giving up gossip? That’s hard. Syndicated (gossip) columnist Liz Smith wrote, “Gossip is cathartic, empowering, and comforting…one of the great luxuries of democracy. It is the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and free expression…. It makes you interesting and boosts your self-esteem at having it to relate.”
A good part of the entertainment industry is built on lashon hara. And if we stopped saying negative things about other people, we’d use a lot fewer cell phone minutes.
Lashon hara is entertaining, easy, ubiquitous — but lashon hara is wrong. The rabbis even compare it to murder because of its ability to destroy lives and the inability to undo it once done.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the mussar movement, which was dedicated to restoring ethics to a central position in Judaism, said: “ If you say of a rabbi that he does not have a good voice and of a cantor that he is not a scholar, you are a gossip. But if you say of a rabbi that he is no scholar and of a cantor that he has no voice, you are a murderer.”
How much more is that true today, when every baseless rumor or nasty comment achieves eternal life on the Internet?
Fortunately, like most things Jewish, avoiding lashon hara isn’t a matter of all or nothing. Every time you stop yourself before you speak negatively about another person, every time you walk away from someone who is brimming over with gossip to share, you avoid a sin, and that’s halfway to performing a mitzva.