Wednesday, April 06, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, in parshas Tazria we are introduced to the concept of tzora’as. We are all familiar with the Gemorah in Eirchin (15) that tzora’as comes as a punishment for sins connected with lashon horah. The Gemorah also discusses that this dreaded consequence is triggered by Shefichas Domim, Shvuas Shav, Gilluy Arayos, Gasus Ruach, Gezel and Tzoras Ayin.

In the times of the Mishkon and the Beis Hamikdosh, people who spoke ill of others were punished with tzora’as. They developed skin discolorations and lesions and were banished to a place outside of the camp. They were isolated from the entire community for at least one week. Upon returning, these individuals brought special korbanos. The entire experience exerted a profound impact and instilled lasting lessons.

In those days, fueled by the fear of public humiliation and banishment, people were certainly more careful with their speech. Today, we no longer have tzora’as to remind us when we have betrayed the gift of speech. To keep ourselves in line, we have to rely upon our fear of G-d as well as our intelligence, which often fails us.

The underside of lashon horah is the debasement of others. Those who engage in speaking lashon horah are not just engaging in idle talk, they are compensating for their own lack of achievement.

When a person looks at himself and wonders why he is not accomplishing much with his life, he may grow despondent. When he compares himself to others who are achieving, he questions his own worth. “Why can’t I be as good as that person?” he asks himself. “Why can’t I be as charitable as my neighbor? Why don’t I learn as much as that other fellow? Why don’t I have as many friends as this one or that one?

So he tells himself that the other guy doesn’t really learn that much. Besides, he rationalizes, that fellow can’t learn without the help of an Artscroll Gemorah and I know how to learn better than he, because I went to a better yeshiva. He soothes his wounded self-esteem by telling himself that his neighbor, the so-called baal tzedaka, doesn’t really know how to give tzedaka and he only gives where he gets a lot of kovod. He tells himself that the person he is jealous of is not really successful, it just looks that way. Really, he is corrupt and not bright and it is all a façade.

The person who is unhappy with himself will then go around badmouthing the other person to anyone who will listen. He will spread stories to prove his contention that the person is not nearly as good as everyone thinks he is. Thus, he kills two birds with one stone. He calms his own conscience that is criticizing him for wasting his life away, and at the same time ruins the reputation of the person who is actually doing something worthwhile with his life.

Is anyone perfect? Is there anybody we know who has no room for improvement? Is there anyone so pure that nobody can dig up a little morsel of derogatory information about him? Of course not. As the posuk testifies, “Ein Tzadik B’Aretz Asher Yaaseh Tov Velo Yechtah, There is no righteous person who does good and who has not sinned.”

Every person, great as he may be, has sinned at some point in his lifetime. A baal lashon horah will seek out the tzadik’s failing and proclaim it to the world. “How can you say he is a tzadik, don’t you know he did this and that?” A G-d fearing and intelligent person who is content with what he has will concentrate on the person’s positive attributes and look aside from his failings. He will note the shortcomings but will look at the whole picture. He will understand that although a person may have committed wrongdoing at some point, it does not detract from his being a tzadik.

The baal lashon horah is not just a gossiper; he is a person who seeks to destroy the order of the world. The world needs tzadikim and people who others can look up to. It needs people to dedicate themselves to good causes. The baal lashon harah, with his cynical and negative broadcasts, attempts to destroy the heroes of this world and discourage people from doing good and contributing to society.

He would rather have a world in which every person’s faults are publicized than actually accomplish something noble in his own life. He would rather see people destroyed than assist in bettering mankind.

Therefore, the punishment of a baal lashon horah is that he is afflicted with a wound on the surface of his body which is visible to one and all. Furthermore, he is banished and sentenced to live in isolation. A person who can not look aside from another’s blemish can not live among people. Anyone who thinks that it is a mitzva to advertise other people’s failings can not live among the community of men, for there is no man who is unblemished.

If you notice a fault in your friend you should point it out to him. Tell him in a nice way, “You are such a good person, but if you would only rectify a certain aspect of your personality, you’d be so much better off.” If you do that you have helped your friend and have done something constructive for the world.

But if you don’t make the attempt to assist him and instead let everyone know that you have figured out what is wrong with Yankel, what have you accomplished? You have brought down not only Yankel but his family, too. You have done nothing productive for yourself or for anyone.

There are people who derive their greatest satisfaction in life from bashing others. Sometimes they are quite justified in perceiving serious flaws in another person or organization or movement. Nobody is perfect and there is nothing wrong with constructive criticism. But it should not be taken to an extreme. Good people do not deserve scorn and contempt for making mistakes. They can be given mussar and corrected with love and respect. It can be done without rancor, without hate, without wild-eyed glee; and without lashon horah.

Lashon horah is permitted if it is spoken for a positive purpose, “letoeles,” because if the person is accomplishing something good with his remarks they are not sinful. They are only sinful when you are looking to destroy someone’s communal standing. Lashon horah is evil because it is a negative. If you demand nothing but perfection from others you are punished by having to remain alone, forced to contemplate your own sins in order for the tzora’as to depart from your body.

We all know that lashon horah is a serious sin and now we have another understanding of why this is so. It assuages a person’s feelings of not having achieved anything with his life and destroys those whose lives are marked by accomplishment, despite their personal failings.

The oft-quoted posuk in Tehillim [34:16] states, “Mi ha’ish hechofeitz chaim ohev yomim liros tov. Netzor leshonchah mei’rah usefosecha midabeir mirmah.” These lines are commonly translated as, “Who is the person who wants to live, who wants to see good in his days? Let him watch his tongue from speaking ill and his lips from speaking bad.”

Perhaps we can understand the posuk homiletically to also mean that one who seeks life and loves to have more days of life should try to see good in others – liros tov. In addition, he should watch his tongue and lips from speaking bad of fellow Jews.

Liros tov; look for good; it will help you live long and save you from lashon horah.

It is so easy to take the easy way out and destroy people; it is so much harder to focus on the good and look away from what is objectionable. But do it anyway. That approach will benefit the world; it will benefit others and it will benefit you.

We no longer are blessed with the Divine disciplinary measure of tzora’as to keep us straight, to remind us to guard our tongues and not to engage in anti-social behavior. But since we all seek life, let us keep in mind that watching how we treat and talk about other people is a good way to earn it.


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