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The Power of the Tongue

This week’s parashah, Metzora, is one of the most detailed regarding how to treat various bodily processes that are natural such as illnesses, secretions, etc. and considered to be impure. The book of Vayikra in general, particularly this parashah, not only deals with sources of impurity but also details the treatment of the most diverse means of purification. The Torah describes the procedure for the metzora (i.e., the person afflicted by tzaraat, a skin disease) after completing the required period of isolation. This process spans a week and involves offerings (korbanot) and immersions (mikveh) after which the kohen can declare the metzora pure or clean. Someone who is poor may substitute animal offerings which are too expensive for less expensive ones. The Torah details the bodily secretions that make a person ritually impure, preventing them from coming near any holy articles, and how to regain the state of ritual purity.

Before the kohen would diagnose a house as having tzaraat, the household items had to be removed to prevent them from also being declared ritually unclean. The tzaraat is removed by demolishing and rebuilding that section of the house; if it reappears, the entire building had to be razed.

Mean López as well as our own Ranebi, told us that the word Metzora is an abbreviation of Motzi Shem Rah referring to Lashon Hara, the evil tongue or slander, the consequence of which is a skin disease. A person who speaks lashon hara is considered to have violated all five books of the Torah. We see the phrase “Torah of the disease” repeated five times in chapters 13:59, 14:2, 14:32, 14:54 and 14:57.

There is a very interesting teaching in chapter 14 verse 4 that specifies that cedar wood, the tallest of trees and hyssop, the shortest of bushes, should be used in the purification process. Cedar symbolizes strength and excessive pride, while the ezov אֵזֹב, hyssop symbolizes humility and can also mean moss that grows between the stones and on the walls, representing the lowest on the social scale, or bone, or a person lacking material strength. Our sages agree that the metzora (the person) must “break” his rigidity and compare himself to the modesty of the hyssop or the moss. He should regard himself as being like a small piece of cedar wood, not the great cedar itself. This would encourage him to consider changing his attitudes and modifying his behavior. If that happens, he will heal.

The misuse of the tongue to gossip or harm others in any way, many may not recognize as sin; they don’t realize that they are sinning when they speak ill of another person; the one who does this is making himself superior to the other. Speech that ridicules another person is lashon hara. When we speak negatively about someone even if what we say about them is true, if it is not intended to correct or improve the person, it is lashon hara, regardless of how it’s communicated, whether face-to-face, by letter, by phone, email, and even through our body language. Exercising self-control over what we say is vital, as is the ability to respect and love others.

Here are two sayings from the Talmud, Arachin 15b and the Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers: “Aperson’s tongue is mightier than the sword. The sword can only kill someone who is close by; the tongue can kill someone who is far away. Lashon hara kills three people: the one who speaks, the one who listens and the subject who is spoken of.”  Although it is true that changing our habits of speech is a very difficult task, as it is written in Mekhilta, Yitro, “All beginnings are difficult”; it is also true that the person who really wants to do God’s will, applies the following from the Talmud in Shabbat 104: “He who comes to purify himself receives help from heaven”.

There are two forms of humility. The first happens when we are suffering pain, or poverty; these two can break our spirit and have us feel less arrogant as we recognize our vulnerability; but this is only temporary, because this humility will probably end as soon as the suffering ends. True humility, however, comes when we are aware of our own insignificance in comparison with God’s infinite greatness.

Why is lashon hara considered to be such a great crime?  We can make up for any harm done to someone simply by asking for their forgiveness; but we can never accurately measure the damage done by lashon hara nor the intent with which it was carried out. One of our Talmudic sages said: “If I had been on Mount Sinai (when the Torah was given) I would have asked for two mouths: one to tell what I have studied in the Torah and the other to use in my daily speech”, meaning that the slanderer has not distinguished between noble and perverse speech; he destroys with his tongue instead of building up.

The worst of all is when this attitude of committing Lashon Hara becomes part of our garments, wrapping us as tzaraat (leprosy) wrapped the metzora (the leper). It can become so much a part of our lives that it is almost impossible to get rid of, because it has become a habit; it has changed our way of speaking. We might think, at times, that if we speak Lashon Hatov (the good tongue, good words) when we’re with other people in our social circles, we won’t be accepted and we are afraid of rejection, but that is choosing the wrong path.

Our ability to speak is the quality that defines us as humans. No other living being has the capacity to communicate as eloquently, as creatively, and as sensitively as we do. Our words possess a near cosmic force that can shape the universe. God created the universe with His Word; He created the natural world with words, and so we, who are made with His Divine Spark within us, can also create or damage the social world with our words. We can no longer say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Words can cause emotional injuries that are just as painful as physical ones.

As I mentioned before, the metzora must be humble before he can be healed; he must go through the entire purification process described in detail in this parashah. The comparison of this with the process of teshuva is evident. The purification process that takes place in the body of the metzora is parallel to that of his soul. Rabbi Maimonides spoke of the purity that can be acquired through the mikveh, the immersion, into the “waters of knowledge” that allow an individual to overcome his bad habits and transgressions. We can see the process of purification for the metzora as a detox which his soul had go through to eliminate all aspects of his negativity. With this in mind, we can understand why “shemirat halashon” (keeping our word) is so important in the Torah.

We often speak and act without being aware of the effect of what we say or do. They have power and can and often impact us negatively. We are faced daily with countless opportunities to speak Lashon Hara. The tongue is the fastest moving organ, and so lashon hara is one of the sins that we commit most frequently. Kings David and Solomon knew this very well which is why they wrote so much about it. The teachings in the Psalms are very clear: in Psalms 34: 12-14 “Who is the man who longs for life, who longs for many days to see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.” Psalms 141:3 “Set, O LORD, a guard over my mouth, Keep watch at the door of my lips.”

In Proverbs we also find wise quotes such as in chapter 21:23 “He who keeps his mouth, and his tongue keeps his soul from trouble.” Proverbs 13:3 “Whoever guards his mouth guards his life; whoever opens his lips seeks his ruin.” Proverbs 15:4 “A kind tongue is a tree of life; the perverse tongue harms the spirit.” Proverbs 18:21 “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and whoever loves her will eat her fruits.”

So, what then can we do? Well, it is our choice to act or speak either positively or negatively; it depends upon us. When our actions are directed toward kindness, sharing, and generosity, we are feeding our bodies with positive sustenance. The moment our actions are focused upon greed, selfishness, and insensitivity, we have opened the door to negativity. It says in the Kabbalah, that as we remove negativity from our lives, the doors to the blessings of abundance and prosperity open.

The importance of this parasha Metzora is to learn that we need to change negative actions, thoughts, and words, for positive ones, to turn lashon hara into praise, into lashon hatov, to give positive and encouraging words to each other. According to Maimonides, praising a person is part of the precept “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

As we approach Pesach, the festival to remember our liberation, may this parashah teach us first to know, to distinguish, and then to break the chains of whatever imprisons us. As it is written in our prophet Malachi, let us distance ourselves from anything that hinders us from being in close contact with our Bore Olam.

Let us work to change our way of speaking, to develop the habit of detecting, rejecting, and discarding what is not for the good from our vocabulary. Let us dare to break with the structures that inhibit us, that hold us back, so that we may recognize ourselves as active and responsible individuals, capable of searching for what gives meaning to our lives; let us be aware that we are imperfect and that we need to immerse ourselves in the stories, the parables, and the principles in the Torah. No one is exempt from committing errors like Lashon Hara, but our God is always willing to allow us to get closer to Him when we want it with all our hearts, by doing teshuva daily.