As someone who gets paid to talk about people, I am keenly aware of the importance and impact of words.
Throughout the Torah, we are often reminded of the power of speech and in this week’s parsha we read about the consequences of those who misuse it.
In Taz-reya we hear more about a condition of sores or blemishes called tzar-at, which is commonly mistranslated as leprosy.
Unlike leprosy, tzar’at are spiritual markings -- appearing first on the walls of one’s home, one’s clothing, and ultimately on a person’s body.
According to the parsha, on a person’s skin the marks appear as white or pink patches; on garments they would show up dark red or green.
One of the reasons these blemishes occur is to serve as a form of punishment on a person who engages in lashon hara. This outward, obvious, and highly visible form of punishment is the price one pays for an offense often covertly committed.
Tzarat develops gradually, and when unmitigated, it leads to a process in which the priest proclaims the afflicted one to be unclean, and the offender is sent from the community to live alone until cured.
Lashon harah is defined as negative comments, whether proven to be TRUE or false.
So even if ill-speech accurately reflected someone’s situation, sharing or spreading the information was treated as a high and serious crime.
Unlike our laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip-monger that “out.”
So why would someone be punished for negative speech when he is saying what he believes to be, and may very well be, true? Can gossip ever be a good thing?
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, says groups are held together by devoting a considerable amount of time to building relationships and alliances.
And the specific form of language that bonds a group together is gossip because this is the way members of a group can learn who to trust and who not to.
Dunbar says that gossip is the most primal and powerful of all uses of speech -- it is why we developed language in the first place.
He argued that idle chatter with and about others gave us a sense of shared identity and helped us grow more aware of our environment.
In a separate study, Dunbar also found that a surprisingly small share of gossip – as little as 3 – 4 percent – is actually malicious.
Dutch researchers found that when a person hears gossip about others, it made the subjects of their studies more reflective, and that “positive” gossip inspired self-improvement.
Other studies have shown that the worse people felt upon hearing a piece of negative gossip, the more likely they were to say that they had learned a lesson from it.
Today’s Torah reading is not the first time we are introduced to tsar-at as a punishment for ill-speech; We saw the consequences of lashon harah when Miriam said bad things about her brother Moses and she was struck by tsarat for seven days. And when Moses spoke negatively about the Israelites at the burning bush, his hand was briefly affected by tsarat.
In Mishle chapter 18, verses 20 & 21 we learn:
Mi-pree fee eesh tisbah beet-no, t’vooaht se-phatav yis-bah.
A man’s belly is filled by the fruit of his mouth; he will be filled by the produce of his lips.
Mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon, v’oh-ha-veha yochal p’ree-ah
Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who love it will eat its fruit.
We know that speech is a very powerful tool.
In fact Hashem created our world with words:
Pirkei Avos (Chapter 5 verse 1):
With ten utterances the world was created. What does this come to teach us? Indeed, could it have not been created with one utterance? This was to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, and to bestow goodly reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten utterances.
Hashem spoke clearly. Deliberately. Carefully. And exactly when forming the universe.
We are reminded of this every morning in one of the first t’filot we say:
Baruch she-amar v’haya ha-olam --.
Blessed is he who spoke and the world existed.
Baruch omer v’oseh.
Blessed is the one who speaks and creates.
In the grandfather/grandson collaborative best selling book How Full is Your Bucket, the late psychologist Donald Clifton and Tom Rath reveal how even the briefest interactions affect our relationships, productivity, health, and longevity.
They organized their claims around the metaphor of a dipper and a bucket, and they show how to use situations and scenarios as opportunities to increase positive moments in our lives— while reducing the negative.
Verbally complimenting your child how he is sitting nicely at the table and finishing dinner, rather than taking note of all the peas he left on his plate; telling a co-worker that you appreciated that she closed her door when she took that conference call rather than berating her for talking too loudly and being disruptive.
When we take the “high road” we fill not only our own buckets, but the ones belonging to those around us as well.
On the contrary, when we use insulting language we deplete all of these buckets.
Many of you have likely heard the Chasidic story about the damage lashon hara can do:
A man went around town telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged for his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends.
The rabbi told the man to take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers in the wind.
The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough, and so he did it.
When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go out and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect all of the feathers.”
So how do we use our words as effective rather than destructive tools that warrant a harsh rebuke? Can our words help mend communities, rather than amplify the divide?
For starters, we need leaders who can set a good example.
The early-Talmud great sage Avtalyon (in Pirkei Avos Chapter 1; verse 11) warned: Scholars – be cautious with your words for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters. The disciples who follow you there may drink and die, and consequently the Name of Heaven may be desecrated.
As Robin Dunbar pointed out, it takes two to tango. You can’t say anything bad about someone if you have no one to talk to – or better – NO ONE WHO WILL LISTEN.
You know, my Baubie used to say (and this was often repeated by many members of my family) If you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all. And it came in handy when someone started to engage in a slanderous discussion at the dinner table.
Think how someone you may be talking about would feel if they were within earshot of your discussion. Would you still be talking about them if they could hear every word you might say?
Let’s all try to fill our buckets (and our bellies) with kind, empathetic words and gestures. And in doing so, we can begin to create a world that’s a little kinder and gentler… at least that’s I have heard.
Shabbat Shalom. Chodesh Tov!