Parsha Tazria –
Likely, most of you have already begun your preparations for Pesach. Many of us go to extremes, cleaning anything that doesn’t move and some things that do. I recently heard a humorous statement we might do well to ponder: “remember dust isn’t chametz and your family is not a Korban Pesach!” So keep that in mind if you are prone to going a little “nuts” with the cleaning! It is perfectly OK to show Hashem we care enough to give it our all, and yet this week’s Sidra also teaches us an important lesson: We can clean until we drop, and yet one word of lashon hara (evil, forbidden speech) can do more damage than all this preparation does good.
Arachin 16a provides a long list of sins that caused the disease of tzara’at (usually translated as leprosy). The list includes bloodshed, robbery, false oaths, sexual misconduct, pride, and selfishness. But the two that are indicated as the primary cause of tzara’at are slander and gossip.
In Vayiqra Rabba 16:6 the Sages explain that the Hebrew word “metzora”, which is used to refer to a person who contracts tzara’at, can be interpreted as a contraction of the phrase: “motzi shem ra”, which means “a spreader of slander” or literally, “one who brings forth evil”.
We might wonder why we do not see mouthy people with leprosy today? I believe that we have fallen to such a low level, that if Hashem were to judge us as He did previous generations, not one of us would survive. Our spiritual level is so low that there is no immediate punishment for most sins. In our generation, I doubt there is anyone who has not sinned with their speech. Our words are such powerful weapons, yet we misuse this power all too often!
Here’s a good example of the power of a word. When someone was suspected of being a metzora, they were taken to the kohen. The kohen would examine him or her and declare his decision. The kohen had the ability to determine this person’s reality by simply saying one word: “tamei” (unclean). That one word would be the beginning of this person’s troubles. He wouldn’t be able to live with his family or go to work and make a living. He would be isolated from everyone and everything he knew. Talk about the power of a word! With one word this potential metzora’s entire life could be turned upside down!!
“Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘if someone develops on his skin a swelling, scab or bright spot which could develop into the disease tzara’at, he is to be brought to Aharon the kohen or to one of his sons who are kohanim.” (Vayiqra 13:1)
If we believe in Divine Providence, then we have to believe that our “so-called” problems, such as being stricken with an illness, are nothing but an opportunity for personal growth. What we perceive as “problems” are usually the catalyst that prompts us to make teshuvah. That was the point of tzara’at. The Stone Chumash points out that all of the sins listed in Arachin 16a have one thing in common: an insensitivity to others that implies the presence of a huge ego. In a midah keneged midah response, Hashem ensured that those afflicted with tzara’at would experience pain similar to the pain they had caused others. This was supposed to cause them to reflect on their behavior and move them to make teshuvah.
One of the major sources of lashon hara is aiyn hara. If we guard ourselves from jealousy, our sages tell us we will not speak badly about other people. This means we should be satisfied with our lot in life. If we are thankful for what we do have, and we spend our time connecting with Hashem, we shouldn’t have any time left to worry about what others are doing, or to talk about it!
“Where there are jealousy and selfish ambition, there will be disharmony and every foul practice.” (Ya’akov 3:16)
How do we learn to control our tongue?
First, and foremost, it is a bad habit to talk too much. Period. It is also a bad habit to talk before we listen. When we talk too much, we tend not to really hear what other people are saying. Nor will we hear Hashem!
“A fool takes no pleasure in trying to understand; he only wants to express his own opinion” (Mishlei 18:2)
Talking is our main means of expressing ourselves. Through speech we express our opinions and exert our will. A practical way to combat this bad habit is to make a conscious effort to listen before speaking, and to refrain from giving your opinion, unless someone has directly asked you for it. A wise person is quick to listen and slow to speak. It is a hard lesson to learn, but it is usually best to keep our thoughts to our self. Silence truly is golden.
“Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” (Mishlei 17:28)
What we say and how we say it, defines who we are. Angry, hurtful words come from angry, hurtful people. Likewise, kind and considerate speech will flow from the mouth of a kind, considerate person. The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that our improper words can cause other people to sin, and they can prevent our prayers from being heard. “There exists an unfortunate phenomenon. Thousands of tefillot (prayers) are hanging in the air; never having reached the Kisei Hakavod (Divine Throne).” The Chofetz Chaim explains that these prayers were uttered through unclean lips. Prayers uttered by mouths that speak lashon hara just hang in limbo. And yet, the Chofetz Chaim tells us not to despair:
“These tefillot don’t go eternally to waste. Rather, they stand by waiting for the person to repent. The moment he does teshuvah, all his tefillot come flooding back.”
Why are we so prone to verbally assaulting each other? Knowing how much it hurts when others verbally attack us, we should be more sensitive and refrain from doing the same to others. When I was a kid, we sang a little song to someone who insulted us or hurt our feelings with their words:
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.”
Wow! Was that ever a lie! Words can, and do, cause damage. And the damage is often much harder to fix than a broken bone!
Sometimes we don’t even realize our words are inappropriate. Joking, for example, may seem harmless enough, but can be extremely harmful when the joke is targeted at another person. The Rambam compares someone who speaks lashon hara in a joking manner to one who shoots poisonous arrows for fun and claims, “I’m only joking”. Although it may be “just a joke”, the so-called comedian can be causing untold damage to the self-esteem of another.
“Look what a great aveira (sin) is lashon hara! Even if you love the person you are talking to and you mean it as a joke, it is nevertheless forbidden.” (Chofetz Chaim)
Did you get that? FORBIDDEN! When we understand the power of our words, we should be convicted to use that power for noble purposes, not for jokes, nonsense, gossip or slander. Our words may seem harmless enough, but in reality, they might be a powerful acid that is dissolving fragments of our victim’s self-image. Chas v’shalom we should ever cause another person humiliation, hurt or sadness, simply so we appear funny!
Have you ever considered the fact that your very words might be awakening the accuser? The Chofetz Chaim wrote:
“Woe to those who awaken this evil force through engaging in forbidden speech.”
What about those times when we feel we need to discipline, constructively criticize or teach others? How do we best use our speech to awaken someone we care about to the error of their ways? The very first step is to use the right tool! Too often we tend to use a chain saw for a job requiring pruning shears! If we sincerely hope to help someone and inspire them to improve, we must choose our words wisely. We must find a way to say what we need to say in a way that will build the person’s sense of worth and dignity, not tear them down. Remember, the goal should be to prune the part that is unproductive, not to destroy! When we prune a plant or a vine, the goal is to channel all the energy into healthy, purposeful growth. When we seek to help others, we must find a way to likewise help them see how they too can channel their energy into healthy, purposeful growth. The Chofetz Chaim admonishes us to always leave someone we feel we must correct with the feeling that he or she is respected and valued.
“But the tongue no one can tame – it is an unstable and evil thing, full of death-dealing poison! With it we bless Hashem, the Father; and with it we curse people, who were made in the image of G-d. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing! Brothers, is isn’t right for things to be this way. A spring doesn’t send both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? Can a fig tree yield olives, my brothers? or a grapevine, figs? Neither does salt water produce fresh.” (Ya’akov 3:8-12)
I think we would all agree that the tongue needs to be tamed. And yet, although we desire mercy for ourselves, we tend to judge others harshly. We struggle at times with allowing others to be uniquely who they are. The Chofetz Chaim teaches that even without agreeing or seeing the value of another person’s way of thinking, we need to learn to accept it as valid. We are all unique individuals. That is how Hashem created us. We are not robots or Stepford wives, but unique and diverse individuals. Sometimes we need to learn to accept that other people have different thoughts about things than we do, and that’s OK. It is not always our job (or our right) to convince the entire world of our superiority! We might occasionally need to “agree to disagree”. And you know what, you might both be right! When we speak lashon hara we are actually showing the world we believe that everyone and everything should conform to our standard. It shows that we are intolerant of someone else’s ways, just because they are different than ours.
“Brothers, stop speaking against each other! Whoever speaks against a brother or judges a brother is speaking against Torah and judging Torah. And if you judge Torah, you are not a doer of what Torah says, but a judge. There is but one Giver of Torah; He is also the Judge, with the power to deliver and to destroy. Who do you think you are, judging your fellow human being?” (Ya’akov 4:11-12)
Tzara’at is a spiritual disease. In order to cure tzara’at, one need not exercise, take medication or change his or her diet. Only teshuvah can bring about healing. It is interesting to note that today, even western medicine is recognizing that emotional, psychological and spiritual factors cause stress and unhealthy lifestyles, which lead to physical diseases. There is a mind-body, or better, a soul-body connection. There is no shortage of studies that show how a patient’s attitude and his or her willingness to change negative behavioral patterns, play a key role in the success of any medical treatment. Teshuvah is just that – a willingness to change negative behavior patterns.
Orchard of Delight (R’ Trugman) quotes Rabbi Y. Ginsburgh who explains that the Hebrew words “choleh”, meaning “sick”, and “machalah” meaning “sickness” come from the 2 letter root Chet and lamed. This is the same 2 letter root as “Chalash” (weak), “challal” (corpse), and “chayil” (strength & valor). He explains that this alludes to the fact that sickness can lead to either weakness and possibly even death (chas v’shalom) or if understood properly, it can ultimately strengthen and even save the sufferer.
“Salvation is predicated on the patient understanding the spiritual causes of the sickness, drawing the proper conclusions, and making the necessary lifestyle changes.” (R’ Ginsburgh, Body, Mind, Soul, as quoted by R’ Tugman, Orchard of Delight)
In Jewish tradition, he goes on to explain, sickness and disease, like all suffering, are treated as an opportunity for repentance, atonement, and rectification. Yet, this is only the effect, he warns, if the sufferer comprehends the true meaning of his or her suffering. The Hebrew words for “pardon” (mechilah) and “beseeching G-d” (vayachel, which can also be translated as “to pray”) share the same 2 letter root, which alludes to the positive effect prayer has on the process of repentance and healing.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that sadness and depression are the root of virtually all physical and mental illnesses. There is nothing more spiritually debilitating than chronic sadness and depression. That is why the evil inclination is actually more interested in the depression that follows sin, than it is in the sin itself.
There is an old joke that having the right to remain silent, does not imply we have the ability. My prayer is that we think long and hard before we speak. It is truly a shame if our prayers go unheard, and blessings are unrealized, simply because we failed to have the ability to remain silent! If we learn anything from Tazria, I pray we realize the power of our words, so we will use them wisely. I also pray we remember that life’s difficulties should not be catalysts for sadness and depression, but instead, they should draw us closer to Hashem and prompt us to make teshuvah! If you find yourself dealing with health issues, I pray that you do not fall into sadness or depression. May your pain and suffering not be in vain! And may we never loose our ability to empathize with each other’s suffering.
Be blessed and be a blessing,