Parshas Tazria: The Power of Words

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Tazria, we are introduced to the Biblical illness known as Tzara’as.  This condition has no translation into English (it is not leprosy) for it was not a physical illness, such as a bacteria or virus, as we know illnesses today.  Tzara’as was a spiritual malady with a physical manifestation.  The afflicted individual was spiritually sick, due to a number of grave sins committed on his part.  Chazal, in Arachin 16a, list the seven sins that cause tzara’as:  1) lashon harah, 2) murder,  3) false oaths, 4) immorality,  5) arrogance, 6) theft, and 7) stinginess (lit. tzarus ayin – having a narrow, negative eye towards others).

These seven sins are all related to sins of speech in some way or another.  Furthermore, according to Rashi’s commentary to Tazria-Metzora, the primary sin associated with tzara’as is lashon harah, slanderous speech.

In a pithy and very powerful comment, Rav Soloveitchik zt’l once noted, “If you want to know what lashon harah is, whatever you enjoy when you talk about someone else is lashon harah” (The Rav Thinking Aloud, Holzer, p.190).

As a result of this sin, Hashem would send a spiritual sign of his illness to the sinner, in the form of tzara’as.  The nega tzara’as could appear on the walls of one’s home, or on his garments, or on his very own self.

The only diagnosis and treatment possible occurred under the auspices of the kohen, further proof that this was a spiritual illness, which had to be treated by the spiritual leader (and not a doctor).  Once the kohen – and only the kohen – declared the affliction to be a nega tzara’as, after a physical exam of the nega and subsequent determination of the nega as tzara’as, the afflicted individual was sent into isolation outside of all three camps (machaneh Shechina, Leviyah and Yisrael), banished from G-d, keviyachol, and from the nation.  His sin was so abhorrent that he was not even allowed to dwell with others who were tamei (spiritually impure).   In isolation he would remain, contemplating his sin, and forced to inform passersby that he was impure and that they must stay away.  Any time someone would pass by outside the camp, he had to call out “impure, impure” about himself.  The same mouth that shamed others would now bring shame upon himself.  In isolation he would dwell, mourning for the proverbial murder he committed with his slanderous words and the divide between man and fellow man that his poisonous words created.  Since he caused a separation between friends, and between husband and wife with his toxic speech, he would be separated from society (Vayikra 13:44-46 with Rashi).

Clearly, given the severity of his punishment – or more aptly, the natural consequence of his actions – the Torah is teaching us about the great and weighty power of our words.  Man was endowed with the unique gift of speech at the moment of his creation, and it is this that distinguishes humanity from the beast of the field.

In regard to the creation of man, the pasuk tells us: וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ האֱלֹים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽהand G-d Elokim fashioned man, dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being (Bereishis 2:7).  Targum Onkelos defines what ‘a living being’ means: וַהֲוַת בְּאָדָם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָאand man became a speaking spirit (ibid).

While all mammalian life forms undergo certain similar processes – respiratory, digestive, cardiac, excretory, reproductive – human beings are endowed with the Divine gift of speech.  While animals can communicate with each other, only man has the sophisticated gift of speech and language.

How ironic to consider that the most elevated mark and gift of man, is also the most powerful weapon of destruction that man has.  The holy Chafetz Chaim zt’l, zy’a, in his introduction to his sefer Kuntres Chovas ha’Shemirah, writes: klal ha’devarim, bi’di’burov shel adam, yachol li’vro’ah olamos, u’le’ha’charivanthe summation of the matter is: with words man can create worlds, and with words, man can destroy worlds.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt’l, teaches that “Judaism believes that words per se are the most powerful weapon G-d has provided man.  Judaism believes in the power of the mind and the majesty of the word.  Through the word, G-d created the world.  G-d did not need words to create the world, but He chose the word as the instrument of creation in order to teach us that we can create the world through the word – and can destroy the world through the word.  The word can be the most creative power in man’s hands, but it can also be the most destructive power given to man.  That is why Judaism is almost merciless with regard to lashon harah, evil speech, and why it takes so seriously the issues of perjury, vows and oaths.

“In Judaism, the word is the mark of one’s identity as a human being, in contradistinction to a beast or brute.  In medieval Hebrew, the name for man is medabber, the ‘speaker,’  Judaism believes in the potency of the word.  It is not just a sound, it is not just phonetics – it has a mystical quality to it.  Hence man’s awareness of G-d must be objectified in the word.  And they all open their mouth in holiness and purity, in song and hymn, and bless, praise, glorify, revere, sanctify and declare the kingship of G-d’” (Abraham’s Journey, p.28-29).

Every day – every waking hour and moment! – we are faced with choices in the realm of our speech.  Today we are no longer afflicted with nega tzara’as, and there is no physical sign of our spiritual sin.  But the lessons and message of tzara’as should speak to us even today in a voice loud and clear (pun is intended).  What we post, what we forward, what we ‘send’, what we say, and the words we speak, can bring the greatest blessings to us and others, or G-d forbid, the greatest destruction.  Let us hope and pray that we are never on the giving, nor receiving, end of evil speech.

Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see the good? The one who guards his tongue from evil, and his lips from deceit.  It is he who turns away from bad and does good, it is he who seeks peace and runs after it (Tehillim 34:13-15).

בברכת גאולה בקרוב ושבת שלום,


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