If a person (adam) will have on his skin . . .a tzaraas affliction (Vayikra, 13:2).

The Talmud is very clear that the affliction of tzaraas (the exact nature of which is unknown to us) is a punishment for having spoken lashon hara, derogatory speech.

The Hebrew word the Torah uses for “person” in the above verse is adam. There are several other Hebrew words for “person”: enosh, ish, gever. The ethical writings state that each refers to a level of spirituality, and adam represents the highest level. We must understand, therefore, the Torah's choice of the word adam for a person afflicted with tzaraas.

The Chafetz Chaim said that the juxtaposition of this portion of the Torah to that of the previous portion dealing with non-kosher animals is to teach us that people who may be meticulously careful about what goes into their mouths should be equally as scrupulous about what comes out of their mouths. There are sins which a Torah observant person would never do, but as for lashon hara, it is a rare person who is saved from it (Bava Basra 164b). Hence, even a spiritual person, adam, is vulnerable to lashon hara.

The Midrash relates that a peddler went through the streets shouting, “Who wishes to buy an elixir of life?” R' Yannai, who was engrossed in his Torah study, asked to see his wares. The peddler said to him, “For you I have nothing.” Upon R' Yannai's insistence, the peddler took out a Book of Psalms and showed him the verse, “Who is the person who desires life and loves days that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech” (Psalms 34:13-14). R' Yannai then said, “All my life I have been reciting this psalm, but I never understood it until this peddler pointed it out to me” (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2).

This Midrash has puzzled many Torah scholars. What was in these verses that he had never grasped previously? The words of the psalm could not be any clearer: Guarding one's tongue from lashon hara is conducive to long life.

Perhaps we may understand this by examining the Talmudic statement that the remedy for lashon hara is the study of Torah (Arachin 15b). A number of commentaries ask, In what way is Torah study a penance for lashon hara? The Jewish law is that if you have offended someone, it is essential that you make amends to that person and ask his forgiveness. They answer that it is not the study of Torah per se that constitutes penance. Rather, the study of Torah will enable a person to understand the gravity of lashon hara so that he will do what is necessary for penance.

The gravity of lashon hara can be seen in the episode of Joseph and his brothers, which was brought about by his speaking derogatorily about them (Genesis 37:2), and in what happened to the prophetess, Miriam, when she spoke improperly regarding Moses (Numbers 12:1-10). To this very day, we are suffering the consequences of the lashon hara delivered by the spies to Moses (ibid. 13:31-32). This should make one cognizant of how far-reaching the effects of lashon hara can be, and how diligent one must be to do proper teshuvah.

While the mitzvah of studying Torah is extraordinarily great (Shabbos 127a), the Talmud points out that Torah can be a double-edged sword. “If one merits, Torah can be an elixir of life; if one is not virtuous, Torah can be a deadly poison” (Yoma 72b). How penetrating these words are! If used improperly, Torah can be destructive.

The impact of derogatory speech depends on the character of the speaker. If a person who has little credibility makes a negative comment about someone, people are likely to dismiss it as worthless babble. However, if the speaker is a person of stature, a scholar whose opinion carries some weight, the attitude towards his words is, “If he says so, it must be true. He knows what he is talking about.” The more learned a person is and the higher he is held in esteem, the more his words are taken seriously.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that every human character trait can be put to good use. But what about vanity? This is so abominable a trait that it repels the Divine Presence (Arachin 15b). How can vanity ever have a positive application?

We can see, however, that even vanity can have a redeeming feature. Before making a negative comment about someone, do not be humble and think of yourself as an insignificant person whose words will not be heeded. This is the time when vanity can temporarily be put to good use. “I must be careful of what I say. People are not likely to dismiss my words lightly. I am an important person, and my words can have a great impact.”

The greater a Torah scholar a person is, the more he must be careful of his speech. The words of an esteemed Torah scholar will be taken seriously. If he speaks negatively about someone, he has allowed his Torah scholarship to become a negative force. The Midrash says that lashon hara destroys three people: the speaker, the listener and the one about whom it is spoken (Devarim Rabbah 5:10). If Torah scholarship gives credibility to one's lashon hara, it indeed becomes “a deadly poison.”

The man who was peddling the “elixir of life” was not an unlearned person. He was trying to teach people mussar, personal growth. He did not believe that a great Torah scholar like R' Yannai was in need of his teaching. When he told R' Yannai that his teaching about lashon hara was not relevant for Torah scholars, R' Yannai remarked, “I was unaware that people had this mistaken impression. To the contrary, it is those who are Torah scholars who have great need for this elixir of life, because Torah has value only if one is virtuous. Negligence on the part of a Torah scholar, particularly in speaking lashon hara, can seriously distort the value of Torah.”

We can be spared from lashon hara if we incorporate the second half of the verse, “loves days that he may see good.” In his introductory morning prayer, R' Elimelech of Lizhensk says, “Help us to see the good in our fellows, and not their defects.”

If we concentrate on looking for the good in people, we will have no need to make negative comments about anyone.