April 4t-5th, 2003
3 Nisan, 5763
One aspect of Jewish ethics that has become quite well known in recent
years is the Torah’s prohibition of loshon ha’ra (literally, "evil
tongue")--a commandment to avoid engaging in slander and hurtful gossip,
even if the information is 100% true. Thanks to the "public relations"
campaign of various educational groups in the Jewish world, awareness of
loshon ha’ra (and of its spiritual dangers) may well be at an all-time
peak, with books, cassettes and other educational materials galore to help
us understand, and battle against, this serious transgression. [To find
out more, a good place to start is with a volume entitled, Chafetz Chaim:
A Lesson A Day, which is available from Jewish bookstores.]
A person could reasonably ask: What is so gosh-awful terrible about a
little juicy gossip here and there…especially if I think the person in
question is a real jerk?!
Well, besides being a violation of the great Rabbi Hillel’s dictum ("Don’t
treat somebody else in a way that you would not like being treated"), I
guess it ultimately comes down to what kind of people we want to be in
this world. Do we want to be destroyers…or creators? Do we desire to use
our G-d-given power of speech, which (our Sages tell us) is one of the
unique characteristics that distinguishes us from the animals, to deride
and damage our fellow human beings, and to debase our own tzelem Elokim
(divine image) in the process? Or, alternatively, do we want to find ways
to use the (powerful) power of speech to uplift, inspire, give hope and
add to the amount of holiness in the world?
This week’s Torah portion discusses in detail a strange and unsightly
disease, tzara’as (usually mistranslated as, "leprosy") that, in ancient
times, could afflict someone’s clothing, household or skin. Our Sages
explain that this was no illness caused by a bacterium or a virus, but
rather, the physical manifestation of a spiritual problem. And just guess
which problem caused it. You got it: loshon ha’ra--that destructive use of
our power of speech to hurt and defame others!
Remember that the Torah teaches (in Genesis) that G-d created this
glorious universe through His power of speech. ("Let there be light…,"
etc.) Since the Torah never tells us anything unless it will help us
understand our own mission and responsibility in life, we humans can
conclude that speech, in its essence, contains the capacity to create and
to give life! Perhaps we cannot give birth to black holes, planets, or new
animal species through what we say, but the Jewish mystical sources say
that the words we use do create spiritual worlds and energies, whether
positive or negative. So the question becomes: In every utterance we make,
do we want to be CREATORS or DESTROYERS?!
The Midrash on this parsha beautifully portrays the true (and awesome)
nature of this choice we face. King David writes in Psalm 139: "Back and
front You [G-d] have formed me…" On a deeper level, this part of the verse
could be understood: "After and before, You formed me." The Midrash
explains that on the one hand, man’s soul was formed (on the first day of
Creation) BEFORE all the animals appeared. On the other hand, he did not
appear on the scene as a full human being until AFTER the animals were
created (on the sixth day). "If he [man] is worthy," the Midrash
concludes, "we say to him, ‘You were the first of all the acts of
Creation!’ But if not, we say to him, ‘A mosquito preceded you, an
earthworm preceded you!’
If we act in accordance with the loftiness of our human soul (neshama),
created in the image of G-d, then we are the "first," the greatest, of all
of Hashem’s works. If we serve our yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) though,
and debase our soul through transgressions in thought, word and deed, then
we are the most degraded of G-d’s creations--less worthy than the lowliest
gnat, who was never created with our supreme potential in the first place.
(And living in Savannah, I know about gnats—trust me!)
Loshon ha’ra desecrates our humanity. Rather than being the princely
steward of the King’s Creation, as G-d intended, we become the
(blabber-mouthed) disgrace of Creation!
We don’t get the affliction of tzara’as nowadays, since the requisite
repentance process requires that the Temple in Jerusalem be standing (as
detailed in next week’s parsha). But the transgression that was its cause
is still with us. If no blemish appears on our skin anymore, loshon ha’ra
nonetheless can leave a permanent stain on the soul (not to mention the
damage it causes to others). Before we speak, we really should consider
the awesome power we have…and the possible consequences of the words we
say. As with every gift that G-d has bestowed on us, we can use our speech
to become more elevated and spiritually refined…or just the opposite. I’m
quite sure He’s hoping we’ll choose wisely.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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