Tazriah-Metzora: Lashon Harah

In our parsha, we find various types of plagues that strike man and his belongings. This may occur to man himself (on his skin), or to his clothes and belongings, or to his house. Plague on the skin is the result of speaking evil of about another person – this we learn from Miriam, who spoke against her brother Moshe and was struck with the plague.

Chassidic literature (Likutei Torah of the Alter Rebbe) puts a different twist on the plague, suggesting that it occurs to only the most accomplished of men, to one who has refined all of his traits except for the relatively superficial trait of speech. To such a person the plague may occur to indicate to him that it remains for him to rectify, refine and uplift his power of speech.  Nevertheless, the sages (in Erechin 15B) tell us that lashon harah (“evil speech”) is a cardinal sin. How can it be, then, that is strikes the most accomplished men?

The Rambam (Hilchot tuma’at tzara’at at the end) says that we learn the laws against speaking lashon harah from Miriam, “and apply them to those wicked and foolish men who speak at length about fantastic and amazing notions…and this is the way of evil scoffers who begin by speaking at length about nonsense…and eventually they come to speak in disgrace of the righteous…and eventually they become accustomed to speaking disrespectfully of the prophets and to find fault in their words…this leads them to speak about God and to deny His existence…all this from the conversation of wicked people sitting on the corners and places of meeting of the ignorant as well as in pubs and beer-houses. However, the conversation of proper Jews revolves only around Torah and wisdom.”

Here, we could ask: If the Rambam’s purpose is to emphasize and teach about lashon harah, why does he mention “those wicked and foolish men who speak at length about fantastic and amazing notions”?  They may be talking nonsense, but is their silly talk really in the category of “evil speech”?  Moreover, regarding Miriam, we see that she spoke out of concern for her brother Moshe, and she said nothing untrue about him – it was Miriam who rescued Moshe from the river and who was responsible for raising him – and in this case she was justifiably concerned that it was improper for him to separate from his wife Zipora.  Why then does the Rambam use Miriam as the example of how lashon harah comes about?

However, it is not the intention of the Rambam here to describe the severe results of speaking lashon harah (such as that it “kills three people…”).  That, the Rambam does elsewhere (in Hilchot Deot).  Here, the Rambam wishes to describe the nature of lashon harah itself – it is the speech of “wicked people.”  It may not contain any “evil speech” about another person, but it is the speech of those who lack wisdom or positive intentions, and therefore their speech begins with frivolous matters (“fantastic and amazing notions”) and then branches off into speech “against the righteous” and then finally they deny the prophets and God. This is the nature of lashon harah, that begins as a superficial problem but soon becomes serious.  And that is why the plague strikes the skin – the skin is external, and the man who is struck by plague on his skin soon realizes that he needs to rectify and refine his power of speech, which is also external.

And that is why we learn from Miriam as well – she did not intend to insult Moshe, but she spoke of him among others who did not need to know about his personal matters.  She took a matter that she should have raised with Moshe himself (and not as an accusation, but as a point that needed clarification) and discussed it externally, among other people.  Since she treated Moshe in a frivolous manner, she was punished externally with the plague on her skin.  Lashon harah begins with “unnecessary speech,” but it soon spreads to include evil speech, and the plague comes to warn us about it before it is too late.

And thus we can understand why Chasidus says that the plague occurs to those who are spiritually accomplished, who have perfected themselves except for their external power of speech.  This is no contradiction to the Rambam, who declares lashon harah to be one of the cardinal sins.  Rambam seeks to warn us that our speech is powerful and that we must use it for only holy purposes.  It is a mere “garment” of the soul, but it has the power to reveal us for who we are. And therefore, it is incumbent upon us to guard and perfect our speech as well as all the other faculties of our soul.

For a longer and more detailed verson, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 22, pp 65-69

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