Minutes of Torah

This week’s parshat Tazria includes Torah’s introduction of a particular disease, tzara’at, unknown in modern times, but is thought to have been a leprosy-like disease of the skin. More importantly, it is classically associated with the sin of lashon hara, the “bad speech.”

The commentators reach this conclusion, by noting that the consequence of contracting the disease of tzara’at occurs in connection with instances of lashon hara. In one episode, Moses is afflicted with tzara’at of his arm at the ‘burning bush’ when he seems to question his selection by God to lead the Israelites to freedom. Later, during the Israelite wanderings in the desert, Moses’ sister Miriam is struck with tzara’at when she and Aaron gossip about Moses partnering with a Cushite woman, and grumble about his apparently preferred leadership role (although Aaron is inexplicably spared any punishment for his participation).

We need to recognize what generates our lashon hara – it will generally be informed by one or more negative emotions such as anger, fear, shame, guilt, arrogance, or jealousy, none of which we are generally proud. And with this knowledge, might we then want to invest more effort in not uttering hurtful words that result from these harmful emotions?

How do we prevent the utterance of ‘deadly’ words? Virtually all of us have a spam filter on our computers which screens unnecessary, unwanted, and sometimes offensive, material before it reaches our email inbox. Perhaps we need to consider  employing a structure attached to our speaking apparatus to insure that we avoid the transmission of ‘human spam.’ At the very least, there ought to be an app that would help us with our written communications. When I marvel at the recommendations that my software programs make to my writing, I wonder why it could not be expanded to prevent or minimize instances of written lashon hara.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that people speak and write without ‘thinking.’ In a world in which we truly value and respect the words that we utter, should we not employ the luxury of constantly asking ourselves the following questions before we spoke:


·       What is the purpose of what I am about to say?

·       What will it accomplish?

·       What effects will it, or might it, have?

Or perhaps you have other criteria that should be considered.

If we were able to listen to a tape of our statements throughout the course of the day, we would no doubt wince upon hearing some of the unkind words we have spoken. Each instance in which we misuse language alienates us from our best selves, as well as others. Like the one who is afflicted with tzara’at after an expression of lashon hara and whose punishment includes temporary banishment from the Israelite camp, we become disconnected from the rest of our world with such harmful words.


One of our most powerful models in this regard is Hillel. In a famous Talmudic passage, he is pestered repeatedly just before the onset of Shabbat by someone who has wagered that he can goad Hillel into losing his cool. Each time, the would-be tormentor calls out an inane question; each time, despite the provocation, Hillel takes time, welcomes the question, and provides a serious answer. While anger and annoyance may well up in him, he avoids reacting to those emotions or to critical thoughts about his questioner. He responds with mindful respect for himself and for the other person.

May each of us, like Hillel, find the inner space within us to hold challenging feelings and irritating thoughts before we verbally respond guided by those emotions. If we were to enter the silent inner space for a second or two before verbally responding — the time it takes you to cough  — we might use the gift of speech to express ourselves from that inner stillness which cannot be provoked by the challenges of life. In this manner, we might lessen the chances of issuing hurtful speech.

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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