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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed, two healthy, clean birds, and cedar wood, and a string of scarlet yarn and hyssop. (Rashi maintains that the reason that birds are the animals to be sacrificed by one who has leprosy is that leprosy comes about because of lashon hara [harmful speech], and lashon hara is in some ways similar to how birds chirp continuously without concern. Therefore one gains purification for this sin of unrestrained speech through birds rather than other animals.)
The Chofetz Chaim once hired an expert speaker to distribute his sefarim, and paid him a full salary. Since the speaker was very gifted, he was able to awaken many people's desire to study the sefarim of the Chofetz Chaim, and therefore sold many books.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib, the son of the Chofetz Chaim, was told by his father to check the transactions of this distributor. He found that the man owed several hundred rubles to the Chofetz Chaim. Upon questioning the speaker, he was given the reply that he did not owe the money, since he had not yet sold all the, books. Rabbi Yehudah Leib investigated the matter and found out that he had actually sold all the books some time ago, and was simply evading payment of his debt. Because of this, the speaker was fired from his job. Undaunted, the speaker continued traveling around and speak-ing, but instead of praising the Chofetz Chaim's books, he began to degrade them and the Chofetz Chaim to the crowds. When he was asked by his listeners for an explanation of what had happened, he replied, "I found out that these books are untrue."
A year later, the speaker's wife came to Radin to ask for mercy for her husband, whose tongue had become diseased. She told the Chofetz Chaim that her husband regretted his actions and was begging to be forgiven for what he had done. However, she made no mention of the hundreds of rubles which her husband had never repaid. The wife also asked for help for the medical bills she had to pay, due to her husband's illness. Even though the Chofetz Chaim was in dire financial straits himself, he nevertheless forgave the man and also sent his wife on her way with a generous contribution.
After some time it became apparent that the speaker's denigrating of the Chofetz Chaim did not gain him anything at all. In marriage too, it certainly never pays to denigrate Your spouse.
See how detestable is lashon hara, it is even more detestable than forbidden relations, murder, and idol worship. A person does not speak lashon hara until he has denied G-d's existence, as it is written, "[Those] who said, our tongues shall make us prevail, our lips are our own, who is master over us." 1 It is as if G-d is yelling at those that speak lashon hora, "Who will stand up with Me against these Wicked ones." And purgatory [geihinnom] also hollers, "Even I cannot tolerate them."
See what is written about Miriam, "And Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe."2 And it is written, "And Aharon turned to Miriam and behold she was leprous." 3 And it is written, "Remember what G-d, your G-d, did to Miriam."4 And the lesson here is learned from a kal vachomer [learning a law about a lesser case from a more difficult case]. Miriam only spoke about her brother, was not in front of him, did not have any intentions other than to influence him to return to his wife, and still she was punished in this severe way. How much more so will someone who speaks real lashon hara about his friend deserve and receive Divine punishment. Regard closely what is written previously, "Watch yourself from the leprosy"
How could speaking lashon hara be more detestable than committing the three cardinal sins of immorality, murder, and idol worship? Why is someone who speaks lashon hara considered as if he denies G-d's existence? What do our Sages mean when they say that it is as if G-d is yelling at those who speak lashon hara? Why is it said that even geihinnom cannot tolerate such people? If Miriam had pure intentions, why was she punished as one who speaks lashon hara? If the verse which mentions that one must be careful about leprosy is placed near the story of Miriam to teach us about the connection between speaking lashon hara and leprosy, this begs the question: why exactly is one who speaks lashon hara punished with leprosy at all?
Speaking lashon hara has within it a factor that makes it worse than the gravest sins in the Torah. That factor is that a person derives no normal physical pleasure from harming someone else in this way, and thus it is an evil that is done for evil's sake alone. Engaging in forbidden relations is a transgression of such a serious nature that it can bring capitol punishment upon those involved, yet it involves physical desire and is not done purely for evil's sake. Generally speaking, murder is inspired by desire for money, great anger, or jealousy, but not for evil's sake alone. Idol worship stems either from ideological error or from physical desires in which the idols serve as an excuse for immorality, 6 but one does not worship idols for the sake of evil alone.
Therefore our Sages say that speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of G-d, since generally it is motivated by pure motiveless evil. On the other hand, when one gives in to his physical desires he is not denying G-d's existence but is being misled by instincts which he should have been able to control. But a person does not have an innate desire to do evil, and therefore when he speaks lashon hora it is considered as if he is intentionally setting out to deny G-d's existence.
G-d's "yelling" at those who speak lashon hara is a metaphor to teach us how greatly this sin provokes the anger of G-d. It shows us the seriousness of transgressing the prohibition against speaking lashon hara. One does not holler at someone unless he is enraged. Of course this description is not to be interpreted literally in relation to G-d; it merely uses human terminology so that we will understand the magnitude of this sin. "And purgatory [geihinnom] hollers, 'Even I cannot tolerate them.' "5 Geihinnom represents the place for those who commit the worst possible evil, since it is where all the wicked are finally punished. When our Sages say that even geihinnom complains that people who speak lashon hara are to wicked for geihinnom, they are giving us a picture of the great evil that is included in this sin, since geihinnom represents the ultimate in punishment.
The reason Miriam was punished as one who speaks lashon Hora even though she had pure motives was because she could have used other methods to influence Moshe to return to his wife. She chose to speak about the matter with Aharon, but this was ineffective and could have no practical results. From this we can learn how severe is the sin of lashon hara. Even though Miriam had no evil intentions, the single fact that there was nothing to be gained by speaking ill of her brother led to her being punished.
Why is one who speaks lashon hara punished with leprosy? Part of the punishment of leprosy is that one is banished from society. The Torah says, "He shall sit alone, outside of the camp."7 Since this person has evil inclinations which brings him to harm other people without deriving any real gain, he must be distanced from others so that he will not be able to do any further damage. He is also isolated by his physical appearance, since he must wear torn clothes and is not allowed to shave his moustache. This is to warn other people to stay away, so that they will not be hurt by him. He is also punished with physical damage to his body, since the leprosy spreads on his skin. Here the Torah implies that there is no other way for him to appreciate the gravity of his sin or to receive forgiveness other than for him to suffer bodily harm. This is the punishment that affects him the most, because of the tremendous discomfort. Bodily pain and affliction are a heavy punishment which is suited to the greatest of sins. That is why lashon hara, which is so severe, carries such a punishment.
We can derive from this that we must be ve I v careful of what we say in marriage. Never is one allowed to speak about his or her spouse in a derogatory manner. Even if there is a heated dispute between the couple, it is never allowed for one of them to speak lashon hara about the other.
Actually avoiding lashon hara in marriage is a great trial. Since a couple are constantly together, there are bound to be differences in opinion or quarrels. When this happens, it is a natural tendency to relate the incidents to parents or friends, and thus one can easily come to speak lashon hara. Besides committing a great sin, one who speaks lashon hara also damages the marriage itself. Revealing what went on between a couple gives others the chance to interfere. This is especially dangerous with parents, who tend to side with their own children against the spouse. They not only spread the damage of lashon hara further, but also are unable to correctly judge what really went on and how best to help.
If there are any problems that need ironing out, only a rabbi or an experienced marriage counselor who shares the religious values of the couple should be consulted.
The first step in handling a dispute between a couple is to sit down together and discuss what is bothering each of them. Together they should try to find a solution. Each side must be ready to compromise for the sake of peace. Never keep legitimate concerns bottled up inside you,. Ask for a meeting where you can calmly voice your feelings, and seek a resolution to the problem. How can your spouse know what is bothering you if you don't tell him or her? A heart to heart discussion is always preferable to making hurtful remarks or internalizing emotions which need expression.
It is clearly forbidden to speak lashon hara about your spouse. You should have the courage and the honesty to talk difficulties over calmly with your spouse and find a solution. This direct and positive communication represents the kind of speech which is a mitzvah, since it brings peace between people and leads to a stable and enduring Jewish marriage.
1. Tehillim 12:5
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network