In Parshat Tazria we continue in the theme of laws of purity and impurity. The bulk of the parsha deals specifically with the laws of tzaraat – a skin affliction that was a consequence for various transgressions, including speaking loshon hara (negative speech about others). The remedy for this affliction was not medical treatment, but a spiritual one that required an isolation period followed by sacrificial offerings. This spiritual regimen implemented to heal tzaraat reminds us that although it appears as a physical ailment, it is truly a symbol of an individual’s compromised spiritual state. With this in mind, we must try to understand the purification process that is described in our parsha, so that we too can undergo a spiritual cleansing process in the moments that we, too, misuse our power of speech.
Many commentaries question the significance of the unusual consequence associated with the transgression of loshon hara. As we read through the first of two parshiot devoted almost entirely to the laws of tzaraat, we might wonder why is it that the punishment for speaking ill of someone else is manifest so clearly on one’s skin…after all, we don’t find any such thing in regards to someone who violates Shabbat or eats non-Kosher?
In order to answer this question, we must better understand the nature of the sin. The Torah tells us when God created man: And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul (Breishit 2:7). Targum Onkelos explains that what made man into a living being, what provided man with a soul that elevated man beyond the level of all other life, was koach ve’dibbur – the power of speech.
From this perspective, we understand that when a person abuses the power of speech, he is not only violating one of Gd’s commandments, but he is degrading himself as a human being, essentially lowering himself to an animalistic level. Accordingly, some suggest that the disfiguration of the skin is a reminder that man has abused his human potential, as the ailment marks the individual as almost inhuman or animal-like. In a very poignant way, the physical reality reflects the spiritual state in the aftermath of abusing the power of speech.
This spiritual impact of speaking loshon hara is reflected in the words of the Kli Yakar, who notes the etymology of the word metzorah (one who has tzaraat) as a synthesis of two words: motzi ra (bringing out evil). On the surface level, the terminology reflects the fact that speaking negatively about someone brings out the negative quality about the other person. On a deeper level, however, we learn that loshon hara actually reveals that there is a negative quality inside the speaker. As we know, so often an individual is moved to speak loshon hara as a way to deflect from one’s own shortcomings and flaws by focusing on the faults of others.
The Torah recognizes this aspect of human nature – and so, the consequences for speaking loshon hara are not a mere punishment for the transgressor, but these laws help the individual to deal with the root of the problem. By isolating the individual, he is almost forced to introspect and ultimately to deal with his own shortcomings. When a person is forced to be with himself, he must contemplate what he needs to do to raise himself up rather than find ways to bring others down.
Of course, the fact that the affliction of tzaraat is so clearly and identifiably on one’s body, the transgressor cannot deny that he has sinned. In some way he is flawed and he must to look deeper into himself to accept and identify his flaw in order to ultimately purify himself.
An insight of Rabbi Nissin Alpert provides an even deeper explanation for the metzorah to become so deeply introspective (again, not something that we find as strongly associated with any other mitzvot). He points out that in the introduction to the laws of tzaraat the one who is afflicted is referred to as adam – a term typically associated with a man of greatness and stature. If the transgressor of loshon hara has lowered himself below the spiritual status of mankind, then why is he referred to in this lofty language?
The answer is found in the end of this same verse: he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim (Vayikra 13:2). In other words, his greatness is that the metzorah will go to the Kohen in order to identify and hopefully then rectify his sinful ways.
Rabbi Nissin Alpert explains further that the greatness of man is not measured in how many flaws he may have, or how many mistakes he has made. Instead, man’s greatness is determined by his ability to recognize his faults and his willingness to change. Indeed this is the attitude we should have not only towards ourselves, but in the way we view others – and this is perhaps the most important lesson the metzorah must learn during his purification process. The key to overcoming the challenge of loshon hara is not simply learning to control our speech – but to learn not to judge ourselves or others as harshly as we tend to do.
Though we no longer experience tzaraat in its physical sense, surely we still suffer from the same spiritual ailment that it once represented - as we know that the battle against loshon hara is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Let us challenge ourselves not to simply avoid loshon hara, because as we know that Yom Kippur resolution only lasts so long. Let us instead try to change our attitudes and our mindsets so that we are more open to admitting and working through our own shortcomings, while becoming less quick to judge others for theirs.
May we continue to use our special coach of speech for all of the positive things that Hashem intended for us to accomplish when He granted man with this most unique and extraordinary gift of speech.
Shabbat Shalom, Taly