The Holiness Of Everyday Speech
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The Holiness Of Everyday Speech

Shabbat candles: 7:18 p.m.
Torah: 14:1-35:33;
Haftorah: Mal. 3:4-24
Havdalah: 8:19 p.m.

Metzorah, usually read in non-leap years together with Tazria, continues some of the themes from the previous portion. In this parsha, we read about purification rites and the reintegration into society for an individual suffering from a highly contagious, leprosy-like skin disease. The parsha also describes a type of affliction, similar to a severe, insidious mold within someone’s house, and how the priest was to purify the house. The parsha concludes with how to handle someone who is tammei, ritually impure from menstrual blood or seminal emissions.

Linguistically, the Rabbis picked up on the title of this week’s parsha, Metzorah, often meaning leper, and tied it into the Hebrew term for one who gossips, “motzi shem ra.” In the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, tzaraat (the skin problem) is seen as a punishment for those engaging in gossip because, like tzaraat, gossip is highly contagious. The Rabbis bring various proof-texts, including references to Miriam, to show how even she was afflicted after speaking ill of others. The linkage of tzaraat and gossip is an attempt to raise a red flag to the terrible damage that gossip can cause to individuals, families and institutions. Without engaging in blaming a victim for an illness that may have befallen them, the midrashic connection that the Rabbis seek to make reminds us of the insidious nature of gossip, spreading from person to person, causing terrible damage. In one brief moment, a person’s life can be destroyed because of a remark or a false report, due to lashon hara (gossip).

Back in the early 1980’s, then-Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan was indicted by the Bronx district attorney, charged with grand larceny and falsifying documents. Almost three years later, after acquittal, he asked: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” Donovan’s words illustrate the quandary our society faces. In our pursuit of information and truth — whether in the media, courtrooms, politics, social media, the Jewish community or our homes and offices — someone is left feeling aggrieved, with a reputation damaged, even where the person has done no wrong.

Over 100 years ago, in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan was worried about the power of language, and how in our everyday speech derogatory information was often passed along, whether true or not. In response, he published a book called Chofetz Chaim (and that became the name he was known by). He classified three types of forbidden speech: lashon hara (truthful but derogatory or damaging statements); rechilut (reporting to someone what others have said or done against that person which, even if not derogatory, could cause ill will and animosity); and motzi shem ra (slander, a malicious repeating of false or even partially false derogatory information).

Once the Chofetz Chaim was conversing with a supporter who was taking great care in composing a telegram. The Chofetz Chaim said to his supporter, “It looks like you are weighing every word of that telegram.” “Indeed I am,” replied the man. “Each word costs money.” Replied the Chofetz Chaim, “Then we should be as careful in our speech as we are when we are sending a telegram.”

From telegrams to telephones, radio, and new media, the old town square and general store have been supplanted by a vast global village. All it takes is one strike of the computer keyboard and the entire world can know the latest news and with it the latest scandal. Given the ease in which we can become partners to the proliferation of damaging and malicious information, it is appropriate for each of us to study and re-study the Chofetz Chayim’s work: to guard our tongues against loose speech, gossip and tale bearing.

However, we need to differentiate between sinful speech and when it is necessary to reveal information, such as with sexual abuse, when disclosing information to authorities can save lives and avoid further emotional harm.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote about his ability to define pornography; “I know it when I see it.” This parsha reminds us to be on guard for loshon hara, to know it when we hear it, and realize that we are in the zone of forbidden speech. Yet, the parsha is also a wake-up call to focus on lashon tov, beneficial speech.

Let us endeavor to find good things to say about people, while measuring our words very carefully if we have something negative to relate. What better time than now as we begin to prepare for Passover, to rid ourselves of the chametz of loose tongues, the chametz of negative language and the disparaging of others. 

Adena Berkowitz is scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah, co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” and visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school.

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