The Sanctity of Speech
One of the main topics of this weeks Torah portion is a skin disease called tzara'at, which is often translated as leprosy, but virtually all commentators tell us that this is not the type of leprosy which exists today.
This leprosy is a spiritual nature, consequently, the Kohen, the priest who deals with issues of spirit, and not a doctor, "treats" the victim.
The person who suffers from this type of leprosy is guilty of slanderous speech.
The spiritual implication of tzara'at is that the person, who suffers from the malady is guilty of slanderous speech. The term metzora is connected with the term motzie shem ra, which describes the classical case of slanderous talk. (See Erachin 15b.)
There are two sections of the Torah where we can see this association, the more prominent one is the section dealing with Miriam's slander of Moses, where she is punished by this type of leprosy. (See Numbers, Chapter 12.)
In the other instance, the one affected is Moses himself as he stands in front of the "Burning Bush." Having stated that the Jewish people will not believe him to be a messenger of God, he is instructed to put his hand into his cloak. When he removes the hand again, it has become infected with this type of leprosy, ostensibly because he spoke slander against the Jewish nation. (See Exodus, Chapter 4.)
THE ORIGINS OF SPEECH
One question which arises is why should slander have such a direct effect on its perpetrator? Perhaps if we go back to the origins of speech we will better appreciate this issue.
The Lord God then formed the man [from] the dust of the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life. And so man became nefesh chayah. (Genesis 2:7)
The Targum translates nefesh chayah as "the spirit of speech." According to this approach, the ability to speak is the result of the merger of the physical and the spiritual within man. Man alone among creation is endowed with this ability, a result of having a soul.
Speech itself makes an earlier appearance in Genesis. God Himself speaks the world into existence. The Mishna (Avot 5:1) teaches that by virtue of 10 sayings was the world created. Thus we find God the Creator speaking and man created in the image of God is likewise endowed with the ability to speak.
The first time man speaks is when he gives names to the animals. And so we see that man's creativity is unlike God's. God creates something from nothing by virtue of speech, and man creates categories and names of animals by virtue of speech.
Man's creative ability surely differs from God's, but we can gain an appreciation for speech based on the comparison -- man's speech is a "Godly" activity.
The first time that speech is misused is, of course, in the sinister seductive comments of the serpent.
The first time that speech is misused is, of course, in the sinister seductive comments of the serpent. This is therefore the archetype for evil in general, and misused speech in particular.
The response of God to man's sin may be better understood based on the holiness of speech. After eating from the tree, man feels alienated and hides from God. For His part God tries to engage man in dialogue in order to give man the opportunity to admit his guilt. "Where are you?" God asks man.
God of course knew where he was, rather He engaged him in dialogue so as not to shock him. (Rashi Breishit 3:9)
Only when man fails to find the proper words, and blames his mate or perhaps even God for giving him his mate, is man expelled from the Garden.
The laws of repentance include the requirement to verbalize one's sins. (See Maimonides, "The Laws of Teshuva.") This is a necessary requirement, which, when understood in this light, will enable man to reacquire his exalted status of image of God.
SIN OF THE SPIES
The people of Israel were guilty of many transgressions during the 40 years in the desert. In the course of the first few months alone, on numerous occasions, the Jews rebelled, but one transgression stands out from all the others -- the sin of the spies.
The Zohar explains:
Come see how insidious evil speech is, because of it our ancestors were forbidden to enter the land, and because of it there was crying for many generations. (Zohar 3, 161a)
The sin of the spies was speaking badly about the land of Israel.
God forgave all, but for speaking evil about the land of Israel, the Jews are punished for millennia!
God readily forgave the Jews many transgressions, including the sin of the Golden Calf. But for speaking evil about the land of Israel, the Jews are punished for millennia!
The Zohar explains that this sin of misusing words -- lashon hara, "evil speech" -- is the sin of the serpent, and God will forgive all except the sin of lashon hara (Zohar ibid).
The Zohar adds that the 9th of Av, the day the spies returned and advised others not to enter the land, became the saddest day in the calendar due to evil speech.
This may be understood, that had the spies not said these terrible things, and had the people not believed them, then the Jews would have entered into Israel immediately, but instead that generation died in the desert and entry into the land of Israel was delayed for some 40 years.
There may however be deeper meaning to this passage. Rabbi Yisrael Meier Kagan, in his monumental work, "Chofetz Chaim" -- which gave him the name he is generally known by -- notes that according to the Talmud the First Temple was destroyed (on the 9th of Av) because of sexual crimes, murder, and idolatry, and that the Second Temple was destroyed (on the 9th of Av) because of baseless hatred. Therefore, states the Talmud, we see that baseless hatred equals the other three offenses. (See Yoma 9b.) And in a separate discussion the Talmud teaches that lashon hara is equal to sexual crimes, murder, and idolatry.
This leads the Chofetz Chaim to conclude that lashan hara is identical with the sin of baseless hatred. Indeed, the motivation for evil speech is baseless hatred. Therefore the Zohar states that lashon hara causes the 9th of Av to be a day of crying throughout millennia, the past 2000 years.
The Talmud discusses the possibility of a cure for lashon hara:
If he is a scholar then let him be occupied with Torah ... a common person, let him humble himself." (Arachin 15b)
When a person who speaks lashon hara misuses his mouth and words, which were given to speak Torah, the cure is obviously correcting the flaw and spending one's energies on Torah. The simple, or common person, of course, should endeavor to spend his time with Torah as well, but until the point when he is proficient, let him at least humble himself.
How will humility help? If the core of lashon hara is baseless hatred, then when a person practices humility he will avoid the jealousy which leads to hatred.
Speech is the defining capacity of man. At the moment when the soul and body merge speech is the result. Speech is the ability to take the Divine and put it in this world. This is why misusing speech is so evil. The sin of evil speech tarnishes the image of God within us.
To speak evil about someone is tantamount to rejecting the image of God in that person.
Furthermore, to speak about another person in a negative manner is tantamount to rejecting the image of God in that person. Therefore we may say that evil speech is the misuse of our divinity in order to reject the divinity of God.
No wonder the Temple was destroyed because of lashon hara.
This awareness of the sanctity of speech will also give us an appreciation of another passage in the Torah. When the people complain about not having water, God tells Moses:
'Speak to the rock in front of them (The congregation) and it will yield its water' ... Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock with his staff ... And God said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you didn't believe in Me to sanctify Me in front of the children of Israel, you will not bring this nation to Israel." (Numbers 20:8-12)
What was the great offense which Moses and Aaron committed?
They were told to speak to the rock, to sanctify God by speech. Had they done so, this would have cured the lashon hara uttered by the spies. But they did not and they lost the opportunity to enter the land.
Perhaps now we understand why the mitzorah, "the leper" would have to come to the Kohen for healing.
The role of Aaron, as the High Priest, was to "love peace and pursue it." The person guilty of misusing speech needed to spend time in the presence of a Kohen in order to learn how to love. The Sages also explain that the various rites prescribed are meant to bring about humility.
Additionally, we can understand why the Sages say that when we speak in an evil manner our homes are affected. This seems to be teaching us that if we are not careful, and lashon hara and baseless hatred spread, then God's house will be affected as well.
In a "normal year" this Torah portion is read after Passover. This time of year is known as the Sefira. The Sefira is a time of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, who did not treat one another with respect.
Perhaps this is the perfect time to think about the value of each person, the image of God of each person, and use our words judiciously, for that which they were intended -- Torah.