Slander and Speech

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat METZORA



Slander and Speech

Adapted by Dov Karoll



"This is the procedure for the purification of the metzora (leper)…." Rashi explains that the metzora brings an offering of birds because his affliction came to him as punishment for lashon ha-ra, slander. In order to atone for chatter, he brings an offering of birds, which are characterized by chattering. This is not to say that talking per se is problematic; there are words of Torah, which are central to our religious life. Rather, the issue is the content of one's speech.

The Torah wants one's discussions to be of a different nature. Conversations should not focus on gossip but rather on more productive and holy matters. The Rambam emphasizes this point with a lengthy discussion at the end of the laws of tzara'at (16:10). He speaks about the supernatural aspect of tzara'at, which is especially pronounced in the case of the tzara'at of the house and of clothing, all meant to warn the person not to speak lashon ha-ra.

Rambam also cites the Torah's warning against lashon ha-ra, in the command to remember what happened to Miriam (Devarim 24:9-10).

"Even though [there were many mitigating factors -] … Miriam cared for Moshe and was not speaking to his detriment but simply erred in comparing Moshe to other prophets, and Moshe was not insulted… - nonetheless she was punished with tzara'at. How much more so is the punishment severe for those foolish, malicious people who sit around idly and gossip. Therefore one who wants to remain on the correct path should avoid sitting with, or talking to, any such people, so that he not be caught in the trap of their folly.

This is the manner of speech of those foolish and malicious people: first they speak of wasteful things…, and then they come to speak against righteous people…, and then they speak against the prophets…, and eventually they speak against God, rejecting the very fundamentals of faith…. In contrast, the conversation of the faithful and righteous Jews is focused on words of Torah and wisdom exclusively; accordingly, God comes to their aid…."

The Rambam cites an interesting regression, from speaking wastefully to speaking ill of the righteous, and then of the prophets, and, finally, to speaking against God. This idea of individuals having a desire to speak ill of the righteous can be seen on a larger scale with regard to the Jewish people. Because the Jewish people symbolize morality, the nations of the world have a strong desire to make a very big deal about any apparent diversion from this path. There is apparently a natural tendency to speak against those who act well, whether out of jealousy or other base emotions.

But the proper path outlined by the Rambam demands raising oneself to an entirely different level, taking speech in a totally different, holier direction. The Kotzker Rebbe used to say that one should be so busy doing mitzvot that he should have no time to sin. The direction of a person's life should be so suffused with serving God that it would be incongruous for him to speak this way. His speech should consist only of words of Torah and words of wisdom

The Midrash Rabba on the beginning of this parasha (16:2) relates the following episode. There was a peddler who traveled around the cities near Tzippori and exclaimed, "Anyone who wants to buy a life-giving potion should come to me!" Many people gathered around. Rabbi Yannai was learning in his home, and he heard the announcement. Excited, he approached the peddler, and asked the peddler to sell it to him. The peddler responded, "People like you do not need this medicine." But Rabbi Yannai insisted. The peddler came home with him, took out a sefer Tehilllim, and showed him the verses (34:13-15), "Who is the man who desires life…? Guard your tongue from evil… Turn away from evil and do good; seek out peace and pursue it." R. Yannai responded by citing another relevant verse: "He who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from troubles" (Mishlei 21:23). Rabbi Yannai then continued: All my days I read this verse but I did not understand it properly until this peddler came and informed me.

I would like to add that the verse does not just ask who desires life, implying that speaking properly provides the means to a good life, but the verse continues, "Who … loves his days, to see good?" A person who speaks properly not only lives longer; his quality of life is greater. He can enjoy the meaningful aspects of life, avoiding the petty ways of the gossiper. The proper path is not only to "turn away from evil" but also to "do good." Leading a proper Torah life consists not only of avoiding negative aspects, but also of building a positive Torah personality.

My teacher, Harav Chaim Yehuda Halevi Hy"d, used to say the following, although I am not sure if it was his own saying or a common saying of scholars. You can tell a lot about a person from the way he chooses an etrog. Some people look for an etrog clean of blemishes, one that does not have any failings. Other people look at the overall appearance, at the shape, etc. These reflect the approaches of "turn away from evil" and "do good," respectively.

People have asked me many times about learning the work "Chafetz Chaim" as a book for musar, ethical development. I tell them that I look things up in the "Chafetz Chaim" when I need to determine if certain speech is permissible, such as disclosing information related to prospective marriage partners or business associates. It is a book of halakhot and should be studied as such. However, one needs to improve his overall Torah personality. This can be better accomplished by learning other musar works, such as Mesillat Yesharim. This will lead more readily to an improved level of conversation, focused on serving God.

I heard from Harav Gluck zt"l of Haifa, who knew the Chafetz Chaim (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan) personally, that the Chafetz Chaim was not a quiet person, contrary to what one might think. He used to talk the whole day. The conclusion to be reached from the laws and severity concerning "guarding one's tongue" is not that one has to be quiet all day. One ought not be silenced by the notion of "shemirat ha-lashon;" rather, one should maximize one's positive speech.

"Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek out peace and pursue it."

[Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Parashat Tazria- Metzora, 5762 (2002).]



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