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This dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of my paternal grandparents, Menachem Mendel (Manny) and Raizel (Rose) Milder who share the same yahretzeit on the 5th of Nissan, though they passed away a few years apart. May their memory be a blessing.
The main cause of Tzaraas, the spiritual ailment, similar to leprosy, is the sin of lashon hara, slander. Rabbeinu Bachye, in his introduction to this week’s Torah portion of Metzora, paints a moving depiction of the power of speech, both for good and for bad.
Rabbeinu Bachye always begins his introduction to the portion with a pasuk, usually from Mishlay. This week’s pasuk is “A man’s stomach will be sated with the fruits of his mouth; he will be sated with the produce of his lips” (Mishlay 18:20). “King Shlomo is informing us in this pasuk about the great power of the tongue for good and for bad. For if he uses his speech for learning words of Torah, rebuking others, and benefiting the public masses, behold his reward is with him and its affects are before him. If, on the other hand, he uses it for slanders, and to tattletale on others then behold his punishment is, reserved and ready, and ‘your stomach will be satiated from it.’ It comes out that the first part of the pasuk, ‘a man’s stomach will be satiated from the fruits of his mouth is referring to the punishment for lashon hara, slander, and the end of the pasuk, ‘he will be sated by the produce of his lips’ refers to the reward of the righteous who judges righteously and brings merit to the masses with his tongue. The pasuk after this pasuk is connected and explains it when it writes, ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who love to use it will eat its fruits.’ This pasuk is saying that after the fact that death and life is within the potential of the tongue then one who loves speech, and desires to talk all the time should put in all his efforts to constantly accumulate reward by speaking in topics of wisdom and rebuke for the sake of life, truth, and peace, to eat the fruits of speech and his reward will be in multitudes since life is within the power of speech. Since he has a habit to speak more than other people, then the more reward he can accrue. The opposite is also true, if one loves speech to speak lashon hara and rechilus, slandering and spreading evil talk about others, then his punishment will be great and he will eat the fruit of his punishment, therefore he should be careful in this matter because death and life is in the hand of speech. The Torah informs us of the punishment of lashon hara because one who is not careful from it is punished and stricken with tzaraas and this is why he is called a metzora (מצורע) which is a mnemonic for motzi shem ra (מוציא שם רע) which literally means spreading a bad name and refers to falsely slandering, for the name of the punishment explains the sin he is punished for. The Torah requires an offering to be brought for the sin of speech and one is only purified by a kohen.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The power of speech has the potential to make an impact on generations. By using one’s speech, we can bring people together, to make peace or inspire others to return to the Torah way of life or to be excited to continue in the Torah way of life. To delve deeper into the meanings of the ways Hashem prescribes for us to live our lives, that can affect the masses and generations for the good, as Rabbeinu Bachye in fact points out. However, isn’t it true that lashon hara and evil talk can affect a person negatively, causing much strife that will effect many people, and turn people off from Judaism, which can also effect the masses and generations? Indeed, look what happened by Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which caused the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdas! Or look at the lashon hara the spies said about the Holy Land, which effected generations from entering the land of Israel earlier, or prevented them from entering it at all. So why didn’t Rabbeinu Bachye mention the effect on the masses that lashon hara has from the negative perspective, like he spoke about the Torah affecting the masses positively?
However, Rabbeinu Bachye wasn’t just telling us about the power of speech; rather, the introduction to the Torah portion was words of inspiration, which are supposed to impact us for both the positive and the negative, to inspire us to use our speech to amass many, many mitzvos. Can you imagine, if a person can speak 150 words a minute, which is 9,000 words an hour, what an amount, unlike any other mitzvah, can be amassed in one day potentially for the good; but also for the bad, how many words of lashon hara can potentially be spoken each day, it’s immense! This should inspire us to speak more positive speech and less negative speech!
It would also seem, however, that Rabbeinu Bachye, in his incredible understanding of what will inspire a person to speak more for the good and to speak less for the bad, sees from this pasuk in Mishley that to show people the global impact which something positive has that can effect so many people and possibly for generations, that point will inspire a person to keep at it or to start to speak more positively, whether it’s learning more Torah, bringing peace to the world, etc. But that depiction does not make as big of an impact when it comes to stopping a person from sinning, the focus on immediate punishment for oneself. Such as the example of the spiritual ailment of tzaraas, or being branded a negative name as a metzora, which connotes a bad name given to someone for slandering others. It makes more of an impact to stop someone from sinning then to talk about the effect lashon hara might have on the masses or for generations.
This is how people relate to reward and punishment. Reward is more looked at in terms of worldly implications, the more far-reaching the better. Punishment however is viewed through the guise of how it personally affects oneself, which is more impactful in terms of deterrence from sin.