One of the scariest scenes in recent horror movies occurred in last year’s It, in a scene lifted directly from Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel (sorry, no links: not safe for kids — or even for some adults). The monster, when not in the form of a scary clown, takes the form of whatever most scares the person he meets. One of the pre-teen protagonists, Eddie Kaspbrak, encounters It in the form of a leper. Of course, this has nothing to do with our parasha of Tazria this week, but I thought of it because the term tzara’at, which occurs many times in the parasha, is often mistranslated as “leprosy.” In reality, tzara’at was a spiritual disease: it occurred as a result of sin and was diagnosed and treated by a kohen, not a doctor.
What caused this disease? The most famous answer (although there are several) is the sin of speaking ill of another person, what we commonly refer to as rechilut or lashon ha-ra. This connection dates back to Moshe, whose hand was stricken with tzara’at when he told Hashem that the people of Israel would not believe he had been sent by God, and to Miriam, who spoke ill of Moshe to her brother Aharon and immediately came down with a case of tzara’at as well.
“The world was created,” teach the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot, “in ten utterances.” Commentators have noted that just as worlds can be created with words, they can also be destroyed with them — hence the prohibition of lashon ha-ra. And today, thanks to technology, it’s even easier to say something about someone else — something that one would never say in their presence. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, in a piece called “The Power of Speech,” lists a number of excuses that we give ourselves or others before we speak (or text, or post) ill of another, including “but it’s true!” “He couldn’t mind,” “Just kidding,” and the perennial favorite, “This may be lashon hara, but…”
But what makes us say it? It may have to do with the lenses through which we look at the world. The Talmud in Masechet Shabbat cites an opinion that Aharon also came down with tzara’at, yet he was cured, while Miriam remained stricken. Aharon was able to overcome this punishment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe reportedly said that “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it may be you that needs repair.”
If we look at the world seeking that which we can criticize, we will have plenty of fodder for lashon hara. If we look for that which needs repair — and look for ways to repair it — we are on a holy mission. With God’s help, we will be able to find the right lens.