“And the priest shall pour of the oil into the palm of his own left hand” (Leviticus 14:26).
Parashat Metzora opens by stating, “This shall be the teaching of the metzorah, a person afflicted with tzara-at, a skin disease” (Lev. 14:1). Seven sins trigger tzara-at: slander, bloodshed, false oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy (Babylonian Talmud Arachin 15b-16a). Rabbinic thought, however, gives more attention to lashon hara, or evil speech, than to any of the others. Why?
Language is sacred because God creates the world with language. Onkelos (~35-120; author of a translation/interpretation of the Torah into Aramaic) claims language is what makes us human; we are the only living creatures to possess language because humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Using language properly is therefore a requirement of “…walking in God’s way” (Deut. 10:12).
Lashon hara does irreparable damage. This is why Jeremiah’s statement, “Their tongue is a sharpened arrow…” (Jer. 9:7) becomes the prooftext for a rabbinic allegory: just as an arrow released from the bow cannot be recalled, so too lashon hara, once uttered, cannot be withdrawn. That is why Reb Asher Tzvi of Osrog (?-1816; Chassidic leader in Poland) explains metzorah can be read as motzi ra, someone who brings out evil (speaks ill of others).
Throughout history, people downplay the significance of lashon hara. The Dubnow Maggid (1741-1804; itinerant preacher and kabbalist) claims that is why the metzora is brought to the kohen, or priest, who pronounces the individual either tahor or tamei, pure or impure. The metzora thus bears witness to the power of a single word to determine one’s fate.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom