Life and Death in the Hands of the Tongue
Remember what Hashem, your God, did to Miriam on the way when you left Egypt (Devarim 24:9)
Almost all of Tazria and most of Metzora are concerned with the intricate laws of tzora’as. Tzora’as afflicted people as a consequence of having spoken lashon hara. This is hinted to in Ki Seitzei, where the Torah warns us to be careful with respect to the laws of tzora’as and immediately thereafter to remember Miriam’s punishment in the desert for speaking lashon hara about her brother Moshe. Miriam was immediately afflicted with tzora’as and forced to leave the encampment for seven days.
It seems paradoxical that the Torah chose to admonish us not to speak about the faults and shortcomings of others by reminding us of Miriam’s sin.
During the entire time Miriam was afflicted, the nation did not travel. The whole nation waited for her as a consequence of the merit she accrued by waiting to see what would happen to her three-month old brother Moshe when she placed him into the Nile in a basket (Sotah 9b). Again we wonder: What benefit was it to Miriam to have the entire Jewish people delayed for her sake. Did that waiting not highlight the cause of her banishment? Would it not have been better for Miriam for the nation to proceed, unaware of her sin?
The answer is that Miriam did not sin. Her intentions in speaking about Moshe were completely well-intentioned, without any malice. She meant no harm to her beloved brother; nor did she cause Moshe any harm, or even ill-feeling. Despite this she was stricken with tzora’as. Her disease was not a punishment but rather the inevitable, natural result of lashon hara. Because she had not sinned, Moshe did not pray for forgiveness for Miriam – only that she be healed.
The command to remember Miriam does not denigrate her, for she committed no intentional sin. But we do learn from that act of rememberance the devastating effect of lashon hara, even when spoken unintentionally and without malice. Just as it makes no difference if one swallows poison intentionally or unintentionally, so, too, lashon hara devastates us, even when spoken without deliberate malice.
To highlight the intrinsic devastation wrought by lashon hara, it had to be crystal clear that Miriam did not sin and that her intentions were in fact pure. Miriam exhibited her love for Moshe when she waited anxiously to see what would happen to him. The waiting of the nation for her was a reminder of her earlier waiting and, at the same time, the proof that she had acted without malice towards Moshe. As Rambam in Hilchos Tumas Tzira’as (16:10) writes:
…Concerning this the Torah warns us to be careful with tzora’as and to remember what Hashem did to Miriam, as if to say: “Contemplate what happened to Miriam the Prophetess when she spoke against her brother’ who was younger than her, whom she brought up on her lap and for whom she endangered herself when she saved him from the sea and whom she had no intention to harm. She erred only in comparing him to the other prophets and [Moshe] did not care about what she said because [he] was a very humble person and still was immediatelhy punished with tzora’s…
There were two distinct aspects of the Mikdash which atoned for lashon hara. The Gemara (Zevachim 88b) relates that both the ketores (incense) and the me’il ( the garment of the Kohen Gadol from which bells and pomegranate-like ornaments hung) atoned for lashon hara.
The Gemara explains that the me’il atoned for the lashon hara spoken publicly and the ketores for the lashon hara betzina (literally hidden lashon hara). The latter is difficult to understand, however, since we learn of the ketores’ ability to atone for the lashon hara from its use to stop the plague that broke out when the people blamed Moshe and Aharon for the deaths of Korach and his entourage. That lashon hara was public.
Perhaps, then, the Gemara is referring to two aspects of the damage caused by lashon hara. According to this understanding, public lashon hara refers to the harm done to the person that it was spoken against. Hidden lashon hara refers to the spiritual damage to the speaker of the lashon hora himself, the destruction of his neshama.
What, then, is that spiritual destruction, which is physically manifested by tzora’as? It is the power of speech that distinguishes man from all other creatures. The faculty of speech enables man to fulfill his purpose in the universe. Through speech man attaches himself to his Creator by learningand teaching Torah; through speech man addresses his Creator in prayer; through speech man crystallizes his thoughts, which in turn leads to action, as it says(Devarim 30:14), “for this mitzvah is close to you in your mouth and heart to do it;” and finally, it is speech that enables man to communicate with thers to unite in the communal service of the almighty.
When man uses his unique power of speech to unite the world in service of Hashem, he realizes his potential as the pinnacle of Creation. The Hebrew word for tongue, lashon, is related to lash, the process of mixing silids and liquids together. The tongue gakes the spiritual inner essence of the loul and expresses it in the physical realm – thereby mixing spiritual and physical together.
Utilizing the tongue for lashon hara, to degrade, to defile, to cause strife and dissension, divests man of the very essence of his distinction as a human being by corrupting his most exalted faculty. The Yerushalmi says that there are three sins for which man is punished in this world and in the next – immorality, murder and idolatry – and lashon hara is equal to all three. These three sins represent the destrution of man’s physical, emotional and spiritual self. Lashon hara equals them all. For the totality of the human being is destroyed by the corruption of his ultimate distinction, his speech, Thus, one afflicted with lashon hara defiles like a corpse. He is banished from society and mourns himself, for the essence of his being has been negated.
AT the conclusion of shemonah Esrei we beseech Hashem, “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” After we have used our mouths for communicating with our creator, we can fully appreciate the calamity inherent in corrupting that same wondrous instrument by using it for lashon hara.
The laws of childbirth precede the laws of tzora’as. Man has the ability to be a partner in creation, to create a new being, or he can take his own body and divest it of tis Divine essence by speaking lashon hara. Both extremes are presenged. The choice is ours. That is the literal intent of the words of Chazal that life and death are in the hands of tha tongue.
Selfishness and Narrow Vision
When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzora’as affliction upon a house in the land of your possession (Vayikra 14:34)
The last of the various forms of tzora’as is that affecting homes. That form of tzorz’as was unknown until Bnei Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael. According to Chazal, the previous inhabitants hid their valuables in the walls of their homes to prevent them from falling into the hands of the conquering Jewish army. When the walls of these houses were subsequently struck with tzora’as, necessitating the removal of parts of its walls and, in some cases, the destruction of the entire house, these hidden treasures were discovered by the new House owners.
This is extremely puzzling. We are also told that tzora’as in the walls of homes was a punishment for selfishness. Why should those who displayed the extremely negative characteristic of selfishness have been rewarded with the discovery of hidden treasures?
The Torah tells us that before the Kohen comes to inspect the suspected discoloration to determine whether there is in fact tzota’as, all the contents of the house are to be removed (Vayikra 14:35). That way they do not become impure if the house is declared to have tzora’as. The Midrash, however, adds another reason for removing all the vessels: it is a corrective for the selfishness which causes tzora’as in the first place. Selfish people often pretend that they have less than they do to avoid lending others their possessions or giving tzedakah. Having to remove all his possessions in public causes him acute embarrassment and helps to atone for and correct his selfishness.
The Mishnah in Nega’im (12:5), however, gives a totally different explanation of the removal of the contents from the house: Divine concern tor the property of a Jew. Only relatively inexpensive earthenware vessels cannot be easily purified by immersion in a mikveh. Nevertheless, Hashem is concerned with even this small loss, and allows the removal of all vessels before the house is declared impure.
One might have thought thet if the intention was to cure selfishness, a lesson on the unimportance of material possessions would be more fitting, and not one which conveys the value of every penny.
The truth is, however, that selfishness – literally tzorus ayin, a narrow eye – is the result of not appreciating the true value of material possesions and viewing them from a very narrow perspective. We are taught that tzaddikim value their material possessions even more than their lives. Thus Yaakov put his life in danger to retrieve some inexpensive earthenware vessels.
Earthenware is unique in that it contracts tumah, spiritual impurity, only through exposure, of the source of impurity, to its inside surface, but not through contact with the outside walls of the vessel. Why are earthenware vessels singled out in this fashion? The value of any vessel can be measured in two ways: in terms of the intrinsic value of the material from which it is made or in terms of its fuctional value. The materials of an earthenware vessel have little intrinsic value. Their utility alone gives earthenware vessels their value. In order for something to contract ritual impurity, it must have a value. Hence, an earthenware vessel becomes impure only through contact with its functional part – the inside – and not through contact with the materials of the outside wall.
A tzaddik views his material possessions as earthenware vessels – i.e., of no intrinsic value themselves, but rather deriving their importance only from their function. Material possessions, in his view, are tools in the service of Hashem. They may, for instance, allow him to do acts of chesed and benefit others. Both his body and his material possessions are means to serve Hashem. They differ only in that the body is acquired as a “birthday present’. The acquisition of material possessions requires effort. Thus his material possessions are more precious to the tzaddik than his own body because their acquisition required more effort. The tzadik’s perspective on possessions contrasts with the narrow perspective of the one who sees only the presonal benefit his possessions can bring him.
When the person whose house was afflicted with tzora’as was made aware of Hashem’s concern for every Jew’s material possessions, his selfish view (tzaras ayin) was challenged and the corrective process begun. The embarrassment of being exposed to the neighbors’ scrutiny was another aspect of the same process. The removal of the vessels to the public domain hints to the fact that their purpose is not just to serve oneself.
The valuables hidden by the Emorim were tainted and contaminated by intense selfishness. The Emorom hid thim to deprive the Jews from benefiting from them, even though they were doomed to lose them anyway. In the hand of people with a tendency towards selfishness, this wealth would have been terribly detrimental. Therefore Hashem utilized the tzora’as as a vehicle to provide the wealth in a manner designed to correct the evil of selfishness. The victim of tzora’as was forced ro recast his attitudes towards marerial possessions prior to receiving this new bounty.
If one fails to learn the lesson of tzora’as afflicting the house, his selfishness will grow into haughtiness. Then his clothes, called by Chazal the instruments of honoring a person, will be afflicted as well. If he still does not heed the warning, he will descend yet further until he acts with total disregard for anyone but himself. That latter attitude is manifested as lashon hara and motzi shem ra, speech designed to denigrate others. As a punishment the perpetrator’s very body will be scourged with tzora’as.
We can now understand what appear to be conflicting opinions regarding the deaths of the students of R’ Akiva. The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) says that they did not treat each other with respect. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:3) says that they exhibited tzarus ayin, selfishness, with regard to their Torah and did not share it with one another. Torah is one’s most precious possession, but it must not become a means of personal aggrandizement. When one truly appreciates his fellow Jew and honors him, he desires to share with him his tools for service of Hashem. In this vein, sharing one’s Torah is the supreme expression of honor for one’s fellow man. Hence the two descriptions of the faults of the students of R’Akiva are in fact one.