By Shoshana Rosa
This coming shabbos we read Sefer Vayikrah's (The book of Leviticus's) parshat: Tazria. It both touch upon the halachot (laws) of tzara'as. Tazria explains the various symptoms a person gets when struck with tzara'as, a supernatural skin condition. The process begins with one discovering white or pink patches on his skin. He rushes to the kohen (priest) for verification. "Am I a tumai (impure person)?" Based on differing signs as well as rechecking after several waiting periods, such as two seven day cycles, the priest makes his verdict: either he announces the individual to be spiritually clean and therefore fit for human society or, G-d forbid, the kohen deems him/her spiritually impure. Then, s/he is put under quarantine i.e. sent out of the camp (the Jews are still wandering around the desert) for seven days until s/he heals.
Just imagine: every time you did something wrong: the moment just after you veered off the "beaten path" you were struck by lightning. Two things would occur: you would either start toeing the line or you would suffer a fair amount of agony. We are not discussing free will in this article per se; a person's right to choose black or white, but the shocking recognition that there does exist in the Torah one sin that will bring a person immediate retribution: tzara'as.
Tzara'as (usually mistranslated as leprosy) was a skin condition, a spiritual plague that afflicted either a person's body, his clothes or the walls of his house. If a man spoke loshan hara, a term whose literal meaning is evil speech, his body was immediately struck with a freakish malady. The saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yisrael Meir Hakohen wrote a book called makor mayim chaim on creating an awareness for what does or doesn't constitute evil speech so that drama and dissention among people could be avoided.
Why did Hashem single out lashon hara as the sin by which a person became physically sick? I heard one eye opening reason from Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, a speaker in New York. He said that when spreading gossip people usually speak about a person behind his back. However, once a man is struck with tzara'as,a flashing neon sign that screams, "I talk negatively about people," he can't hide whispers behind his hands. Thus, he is forced to stop. Not only that, but he is stuffed into solitary confinement so that he can repent, separate from the environment in which he sinned.
Anyone can choose to hurt himself. However, when it comes to hurting another person's feelings (whether the person spoken about ever becomes aware of the fact that he was gossiped about or not), Hashem puts his foot down. If a man embarrasses his fellow human being, G-d announces, "You will not be allowed into Gan Eden (heaven) unless you receive forgiveness from the person whose feelings you hurt.
The idea of tzara'as also stems from a pointing out of the difference between this world and the next. While one can physically touch this world, people's emotions aren't tangible. However, the next world, The World to Come, is wholly spiritual, that is, it is only emotional. What connects the physical with the emotional in this life is one's ability to speak. This gift was given to man so that he could connect with G-d and his fellow man. However, when he abuses the power of speech through gossip mongering, talk which tears people apart, G-d says, "You do not deserve to enter My world."
Who doesn't remember that preschool chant, "Sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me"? While it's true that physical abuse can injure a person in this world, words also hurt, they hurt a lot and they will not only wound one here but the results will follow him (the speaker and person spoken about) to the next world as well. How can we avoid such danger? I heard a wise man once say, "In order for me to protect my lips from speaking wrong, I guard my mind from judgmental thinking." I highly recommend learning the Chofetz Chaim's sefer (book) on Shmiras haloshon (guarding one's speech). It's divided into "A lesson a day" and is an easy way to pick up how one can improve in his interrelationships.