A person I know overheard a conversation between two people. They were discussing a guest speaker who was invited to their shul. One of the people said, “I don’t know why they invited him to speak. He wasn’t so great last time. What’s he speaking about?” The other person responded, “Shmiras HaLashon – guarding one’s tongue.”
The main topic of this week’s Parsha is Tzara’as – which is often but mistakenly translated as leprosy. Tzara’as is a disease that affects one’s skin. However, its detection, diagnosis and treatment do not correspond to the disease of leprosy. Most importantly, it is not even the result of a physical condition. Our Rabbis teach us that it is the result of Lashon Hara – slander and defamation of character.
This portion about slander immediately follows the end of last week’s Parsha that teaches us the laws of Kashrus. Perhaps the reason for the juxtaposition of these two parshios is to teach us that just as what goes into our mouths has restrictions and must be kosher, also what comes out from our mouths – our speech - has restrictions and must be kosher.
Kosher speech takes on several forms. Is our language clean and appropriate? When we get upset, do we lose our tempers and use decorative language? Or, do we go with the flow – in the words of the Talmud – “this is also for good,” or as one of my colleagues and teachers responds to everything, “Baruch Hashem.” We should think about our own individual behaviors. How do we react when things don’t go as anticipated?
Language is one form of Kosher speech – to ensure that the words emanating from our mouths are kosher. There is also another form of speech of which we must beware – Lashon Hara – slander. Just as Shabbos and kashrus are keys to Jewish survival, so are the laws of Lashon Hara. The Chafetz Chaim writes that Lashon Hara was the cause of the destruction of both the first and second Batei Mikdash. It has been a problem since Adam complained to G-d about Eve.
The Talmud mentions an interesting note. During the reign of King Achav – the time of the Prophet Eliyahu – the people were victorious in battle and did not suffer casualties. Although they were an idolatrous society, they did not speak Lashon Hara. They got along with each other. However, during the time of King David, they suffered casualties in battle. Although they studied Torah, they spoke Lashon Hara. If people in a society can get along with each other, G-d will give them success. However, if people cannot get along - no matter how much Torah exists - it cannot overcome the deficiency of people who fight, argue and speak negatively.
What is Lashon Hara? A negative statement that is true. If it is false, that is worse – that is called defamation of character. “So and So davened off key.” That might be true. However, there is no purpose in relating this to another person. There is nothing to be gained. That qualifies as Lashon Hara.
“The food in the restaurant was terrible.” There are a couple of problems with that statement. Firstly, that is your opinion. It is not necessarily a statement of fact. Maybe somebody else liked the food. Secondly, if it is true, to whom are you saying it? Are you complaining to your neighbor during davening? That is Lashon Hara. When you talk about this D’var Torah, what are you going to say? When you talk about the president of the shul, what do you say?
When I ran camp at the JCC, one of the more challenging aspects of the job was the bus route, including the pickup and drop off of the campers. One time, a parent came in to complain about the buses. I was away at the time, so my assistant handled the situation. This parent was very upset and was really giving it to my assistant. The parent concluded by saying, “And there are a lot of parents complaining about the buses.” My assistant paused, looked around the parent and told him, “I don’t see a long line of people in back of you!” That quieted the parent.
The parent was correct in telling the appropriate authorities if there was an issue regarding the buses. However, he exaggerated and that qualifies as Lashon Hara.
Another aspect of Lashon Hara is judging people favorably. Look for the positive. Don’t always try to emphasize the negative. We run into that quite a bit regarding the State of Israel. King David said, “See the good of Jerusalem.” Unfortunately, human nature can be to focus on the negative. That is what makes the news. We have enough enemies who try to slander and defame Israel. We should not copy them. Let us look at all the positives in Israel - a Jewish country with more than 6 million Jews and growing. A country that flows with Torah study and Judaism.
By watching our speech, we concentrate on the positive aspects of life and all the good that G-d has done for us. What goes into our mouths must be kosher . . . what comes out from our mouths must be kosher . . . then our attitude towards G-d, Judaism and life will also be kosher.