Lashon ha’Ra: Slander Destroys

on Thursday, 27 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777

This week we read the double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and a wholly unappetizing set of Torah portions it is indeed.  Metzora, in particular, focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world.  It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantines to isolate it.  But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.

The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself, they said, an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech.  Their interpretation was based on evidence in the Torah itself: Moses’ hand became leprous when he expressed doubt about the willingness of the people to believe in his mission (Exodus 4: 6-7), while Miriam was struck by leprosy when she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15). The leper) was a person who spoke badly about others.

Evil speech, lashon ha’ra, and it’s even darker partner, motzi shem ra, slander, were considered by the sages to be among the worst sins of all.  What needed to be eliminated from society was not just the biological illness of leprosy but these terrible infections of slander and gossip.

The ways in which we employ language lead to many of the worst problems in society.  Lashon ha’ra, Maimonides taught, is not only a terrible, epidemic disease but even a multiple murderer, killing three people: the one who shares the gossip, the one who hears the gossip, and the one who is the subject of gossip.

According to Jewish law, even gossip that has a kernel of truth within it is lashon ha’ra, and inherently wrong, and causes intense societal damage.  Some authorities, such as the great rabbi know as the Chofetz Chayim, go so far as to say that even gossiping about the truth is morally heinous.

There is an interesting parallel in our own law code in the United States.  There is a legal concept in Amercan jurisprudence called the “Fruit of the poisoned tree,” which rules out the use of evidence collected improperly.  That is, any discovery gathered in such a way is tainted and not legally admissible.  So it is with metzora, and all other forms of lashon hara, evil speech.  Whether the gossip has elements of truth in it or not, it is derived from a fundamentally corrupted source. 

Our moral goal in life should be to completely eliminate from our lives and habits motzi shem ra, the awful tendency we have to speak ill of others.  The rabbis teach that if you commit no slander your own life can become clean of moral illness.  By purifying our speech of words that are damaging to others, we can find our way clear to living better, holier lives.

Our portion this week even delineates forms of metzora that affect the very houses in which we live, metzora’at bayit.  If a house is badly enough infected with this leprosy-of-the property, it may even need to be destroyed.  It’s along the lines of Abraham Lincoln’s concept that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

If we wish to have not only personal lives but organizations and synagogues and communities in which holiness can flourish, the dreadful sin of slander must be eliminated as well.

May we each do our part, now and always, to remove metzora, personal impurities of speech, from our own lives, our institutions, and our community.

Please join us for our Israeli Celebration Shabbat Rocks! this Friday night: Israeli-themed dinner at 5:30 PM, with Shabbat Israel Rocks! at 6:30 PM.

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