More Than Words

March 27, 2014
BY Anna Levy Balfanz
Parshat Tazria

Although leprosy isn’t a concern today, the timelessness of this biblical ailment’s message deeply resonates. After explaining the purity rituals of childbirth, Parshat Tazria dives into a lengthy and detailed description of the skin-condition tzara’at, commonly known today as leprosy.

Essentially, if people developed white discolorations on their skin, they were brought to the kohain. The kohain examined them to determine whether they were ritually clean or unclean and quarantined them during an examination period of varying lengths. If the kohain determined that the person had tzara’at, the sinner repented through a process involving sacrifice, mikvah immersion and the shaving of all their hair.

Considering how God inflicted Miriam with leprosy after she denounced Moshe for marrying Zipporah, a dark-skinned woman, our sages stated that leprosy was the punishment for lashon harah, derogatory speech of another person using true facts. When someone developed the symptoms of tzara’at, the kohain quarantined him or her, because spreading negative gossip may turn families, friends or acquaintances against one another.

Although lashon harah specifically denotes demeaning another person, the Lubavitcher Rebbe brings another relevant perspective. In one of his stories, a man approaches Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch and describes himself as a horrible villain while listing all of his moral and spiritual insufficiencies. “Surely,” the Rebbe replies, “you know how grave is the sin of lashon harah, speaking evilly of a human being. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does it say that it is permissible to speak lashon harah about oneself.”

As people, we constantly belittle ourselves. Either out loud or internally, we bemoan and feel devastated over our self-perceived deficiencies and blemishes. But if we wouldn’t judge someone else so harshly, or want him or her to perceive us in such a negative, lacking way, why do we relentlessly critique ourselves?

Words are never “just words”; they transform thoughts and concepts into reality. It’s one thing to have a moral essence tainted with some imperfect thoughts or tendencies — we’re all human. We’re not expected to be flawless, only to try and conquer our undesirable inclinations. However, if another person gossips about these faults, it actualizes them and cements them as a part of our identity. Once you gossip to someone, it will spread, and it’s impossible to take back your words.

Conversely if you exercise speech to spread encouragement and positivity, the subject of your speech may feel empowered and motivated to live up to the positive expectations now verbalized, and by extension, believed about them. You still affect the original three; yourself, the person you’re speaking to and the object of your speech, but for the better.

The tzara’at infliction wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it granted sinners a chance to repent and cleanse themselves. Today, with social media, it’s realistic to assume we commit more lashon harah than our biblical ancestors. However, we don’t have the warning that tzara’at provided. It’s dependent on us to look out for ourselves and each other to stop the harm constantly perpetrated though damaging words. Perhaps today’s lack of leprosy displays God’s faith in us to speak kindly about ourselves and each other without His unsightly reminder. That’s an expectation we should strive to achieve.

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