שֶׁשׁ־הֵ֭נָּה שָׂנֵ֣א יְהוָ֑ה וְ֝שֶׁ֗בַע תועבות [תּוֹעֲבַ֥ת] נַפְשֽׁוֹ׃ עֵינַ֣יִם רָ֭מוֹת לְשׁ֣וֹן שָׁ֑קֶר וְ֝יָדַ֗יִם שֹׁפְכ֥וֹת דָּם־נָקִֽי׃ לֵ֗ב חֹ֭רֵשׁ מַחְשְׁב֣וֹת אָ֑וֶן רַגְלַ֥יִם מְ֝מַהֲר֗וֹת לָר֥וּץ לָֽרָעָה׃ יָפִ֣יחַ כְּ֭זָבִים עֵ֣ד שָׁ֑קֶר וּמְשַׁלֵּ֥חַ מְ֝דָנִ֗ים בֵּ֣ין אַחִֽים׃
Six things Gd hates; seven are an abomination to him. Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that spill the blood of the innocent. A heart that plots crooked thoughts; legs that quickly run to pursue evil. A false witness testifying lies, and one who incites brothers to quarrel. — Proverbs 6:16-20
א"ר שמואל בר נחמני א"ר יוחנן על שבעה דברים נגעים באין: על לשון הרע ועל שפיכות דמים ועל שבועת שוא ועל גילוי עריות ועל גסות הרוח ועל הגזל ועל צרות העין
R Shemuel son of Nahmani said in the name of R Yohanan: Seven things cause skin plagues: evil speech, bloodshed, false oaths, immorality, haughtiness, theft, and stinginess.
Every year, during the weeks of Parashiot Tazria and Metzora, we have our annual talk about lashon hara, evil speech. This is because the disease tzaraat, the main topic of the parshiot, is linked by our sages to gossip and slander. So every year, we obsess over this commandment and pay lip service to halting it.
But why did the rabbis link skin diseases to gossip in the first place? What is it about slander that the Sages rail against with such harsh language? On one level, it is easy to understand the link. Firstly, tzaarat appears to be linked to slander in the Torah itself. Miriam is the archetypal victim of tzaraat. She was smitten with it after speaking ill about Moshe. Moshe himself questioned the loyalty of the Jewish people, and one of the signs he got to show he was a prophet was to have his hand afflicted with tzaraat when he touched it to his chest. The second is that Vayikra Rabba links the word “metzora,” a person who has tzaraat, with the phrase “motzei ra,” bringing forth evil.
So if the link is hinted Biblically, it is made explicit in Hazal. But why, and what does it mean to bring forth evil? Many think that this is explicitly what we colloquially call “Motzei Shem Ra,” slander, but though that is the origin of the term, it seems the midrash is using it in the broader sense. In fact both the Midrash and the Talmud in Arakhin list seven things things that cause tzaraat. These list are not exactly identical, both both seem to be derived from the verse in Proverbs quoted above, in the Midrash’s case explicitly so. Also, in both cases slander is condemned the most and serves as the jumping off point for the other sins.
The connection between the verse and tzaraat seems to be that in each case Gd-given attributes are used to commit a sin against fellow people, be it legs, hands, or the mind. In each case, Gd reacts by smiting the body He gave that was then gravely misused. Slander is the worst misuse, because what should be the highest attribute of a person is instead used to tear down others and create strife. Onkelos’s translation of Genesis 2:7 shows that, for him, the very definition of a human soul involves communication. Ramban proves that this is the working definition of the Talmud and Midrash as well. As our Haftara this week says, when we speak torah together, Gd dwells among us and listens. When we instead use our minds and our powers of communication for petty squabbles and stabbing each other in the back, we misuse that sacred given power and infuriate Gd to no end.
All this should be old hat by now, but it pains me to say that though we discuss lashon hara every year at this time, we still have a problem with gossip and slander. We still find new ways to be racist, crude, and malicious. We even use the very laws of lashon hara to silence those we don’t like or don’t want to hear, while continuing to gossip with friends. When we talk with friends about people outside the community or people who don’t fit in, we have no problems resorting to stereotypes. But when someone cries for help, we suddenly remember the laws of lashon hara and mesira. We slander other Jewish professionals over political disagreements, and then get indignant when challenged on it. We have weaponized halakha against others, but never reflect upon ourselves.
The irony is not lost on me that at this very moment, we have an epidemic of skin disease because of misinformation being spread through our well-worn gossip channels. Originally, I thought the anti-vaxx problem was an affliction that plagued the entire United States, and there were anti-vaxxers in the forum community because there were anti-vaxxers everywhere. But this week I discovered that we have managed to take the anti-vaxxer culture and make it our own. The same well-worn channels that transmit community dirt are being repurposed to transmit conspiracy theories. Jewish doctors and nurses are now being called murderers and having their halakhic observance questioned. The same misremembered teshuvot used to attack other people’s minhagim are now tearing down health professionals who are dedicated to keeping our people safe. No one verifies whether things were actually said or what the facts actually are. They simply pass them along with the same effort we do when commenting on shidduchim. The ideas of debunked and defrocked former scientists, conspiracy theorists, and charismatic amateurs are being trusted and spread rather than facts supported by actual data, putting real lives at real risk. They choose to believe that vaccines are more dangerous than the infections and cancers they prevent. They choose to believe that vaccines cause autism, but don’t consider whether that would be worse than death for their child even if it were true. As a person on the spectrum who is proud of his accomplishments, who loves and is loved by his family, and who wouldn’t trade the brain Gd gave him in for a neurotypical one even if Gd himself made the offer, it is personally heartbreaking that Jews would risk their children’s lives rather than have them turn out like me.
My teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Chaim says often that rechilut, gossip, does not need to be explicitly harmful to be prohibited. Simply sharing every piece of information heard is enough to violate the prohibition. What is told in confidence is not meant to be passed around, and the rumors we spread around without verifying we are accountable for. The Talmud compares the mindless chatter of a gossip to that of chirping birds, and it says for this reason the atonement ceremony of someone with tzaraat uniquely involves these song binds. Our intellects and our ability to communicate are Gd’s gift which elevates us above other life. When we squander it to thoughtlessly spread rumors and hearsay, we lower ourselves from our sacred level.
How much time do we devote to Torah compared to how much do we spend trying to tear each other down? How much of our speech do we devote to mindless gossip, and how much to prayers? How much time do we spend mindlessly sharing the latest rumors, and how much do we devote to understanding our world? This one time, let us actually let the message of the parasha sink in and do a serious accounting of how we are using our precious speech and mind.