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Torah Attitude: Parashas Metzora: The gossiper and the snake, biting off more than they can chew

April 8, 2003


Plagues will inflict the one who speaks evil about others. G’d was not pleased with Moses’ hesitation. The signs of the snake and leprosy were hints. The biting gossiper hurts others for no reason whatsoever. The level of impurity inflicted on the metzora is severe. Evil talk destroys marriages and friendships. The gossiper is isolated from G’d. Gossip has kept the Jewish people in exile. The slander of the spies kept the Jewish people in the desert for 40 years. Gossip is in a certain sense considered the greatest sin of all. Guarding our tongues will hasten the coming of the greatest redemption.

Speaking evil

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion it says, “This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification.” In Hebrew, someone who speaks evil is called “motzi shem ra” which obviously is closely connected with the word “metzora”. The Talmud (Erchin 15b) interprets this verse as” This shall be the law of the one who speaks evil about someone else.” Based on this the Talmud warns that plagues will inflict the one who speaks evil about others.

Moses’ improper accusation

When Moses had his first encounter with the Almighty at the burning bush, G’d commanded him to redeem the Jews and take them out of Egypt. Moses was extremely reluctant to assume this leadership role upon himself (Shemos 3:11). One of the reasons for his hesitation was that he felt that the Jews would not believe and trust him.

Snake and leprosy

G’d was not pleased with Moses’ improper suspicion. In response to his hesitation, G’d gave him signs to demonstrate his divine mission. G’d told Moses to take the staff in his hand and cast it on the ground. When Moses did this the staff became a snake. G’d told Moses to put his hand to his bosom. When he withdrew his hand it was plagued with leprosy. Our sages explain that both of these signs provided a hint to Moses that he was making improper accusations by speaking about the Jewish people in a negative way. The sign of the snake hinted that his accusation was similar to the improper words of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The sign of leprosy hinted that he deserved to receive the punishment inflicted for slander.

The biting gossiper

King Solomon says, (Koheles 10, 11) “Does the snake bite without anyone whispering? There is no advantage to the master of the tongue”. On this the Talmud (ibid) says, “All the animals will gather by the snake (to challenge it): ‘The lion tears and the wolf rips and they eat. But you, what benefit do you have when you bite?’ The snake answers back: ‘And what benefit does the gossiper have?’” A gossiper is like a snake that bites without receiving any real benefit and causes only harm. Similarly, in Tehillim (120:3) it says, “What does it give you and what does it add to you, deceitful tongue?” The biting gossiper often hurts others for no reason whatsoever.

Severe spiritual impurity

The metzora is an evil gossiper. The plagues that inflict the evil gossiper are both a physical sickness and a spiritual impurity. The seriousness of this improper conduct is seen from the severity of the level of impurity inflicted on the metzora. For example, someone who has been in contact with a deceased person becomes impure but this impurity only prevents one from entering the holy grounds of the Temple. However, not only is a metzora restricted from entering the Temple, he is also forced to remove himself from any contact whatsoever with other people. As it says (Vayikra 13:46),”All the days that the plague is upon him … he shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

Destroyed marriages and friendships

Our sages explain that the severity of the plagues inflicted on the metzora is not merely a quarantine to prevent the spread of some contagious disease. Rather, this is a lesson for the person who is plagued to help him correct his behaviour. With his evil talk he destroyed marriages and friendships and thereby isolated spouses and friends. Therefore, the appropriate correction for him is also isolation.

Isolated from G’d

Furthermore, in Tehillim (101:5) it says, “The one who slanders his friend in secret, [G’d says] him I will cut down. The one with haughty eyes and a broad [envious] heart, I cannot bear him.” The Talmud (ibid) explains that this verse means that G’d says that He cannot live with the gossiper in the world. Not only is the gossiper isolated from his fellow human beings, he isolated from G’d as well.

Gossip keeps the Jewish people in exile

All the calamities and exiles of the Jewish people were a direct consequence and punishment resulting from gossip. One of the initial causes that brought about the descent of Jacob and his family into Egypt was Joseph’s bringing gossip about his brothers to his father (see Rashi on Beresheis 37:2). Later when Moses found out that Dothan and Aviram had reported him to the Egyptian authorities, he exclaimed, (Shemos 2:14) “Indeed, the matter is known.” Rashi quotes from the Midrash that these means the matter became known to Moses why the Jews were suffering in exile. As long as there are gossipers amongst the Jewish people, Moses understood that they deserve to remain in exile.

The spies

Before entering the land of Israel, Moses sent spies to scout the land and report back with their findings. When they returned from their mission, ten out of the twelve spies slandered and spoke evil about the land of Israel. Because of this misconduct, the Jewish people had to remain in exile in the desert for 40 years. But it goes even further than that. As it says, (Tehillim 106:24-27) “They despised the desirable land. They did not trust His word… And He [G’d] lifted up His hand in an oath to throw them down in the desert and to throw down their descendants among the nations and to scatter them in the lands.” All the subsequent exiles of the Jewish people originate with the slander by the spies. If that would not have taken place, the Jews would have merited entering the land of Israel without having to wander for 40 years in the desert. They would have entered with Moses as their leader and would never have had to leave the land of Israel again.

Baseless hatred

The Chofetz Chaim explains that our present exile is also a direct consequence of gossiping in the time of the Second Temple. The Talmud (Yuma 9b) questions why the Second Temple was destroyed, as it is a known fact that the Jews at the time were Torah observant. The Talmud answers that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. How does this hatred manifest itself? The initial expression, says the Chofetz Chaim, is slandering and gossiping.

The greatest sin

We may wonder why gossip is the basic cause for all our suffering in all the exiles. The Chofetz Chaim quotes from the Zohar (Pekudei) that other misconduct and wrongdoings are not brought up in the Heavenly Court immediately after they occur. The Accuser at the Heavenly Court is only permitted to bring forth his accusations if someone down on Earth opens his mouth to speak evil about others. So many transgressions could be filed away without any punishable consequences as long as no one slanders his fellow being in this world. Our sages (Midrash Rabba Shoftim 5:10) explain that there were generations of evil idol worship that lived in unity without slander and enjoyed great military success. On the other hand, there were generations of otherwise Torah observant Jews that slandered others and would continually lose in battle. From this perspective, it appears that gossip is the singular sin with the greatest consequences of all.

The greatest redemption

The Midrash (Vayikra 32:5) says that in the merit of four things were the Jews redeemed out of Egypt: (1) they did not change their names, (2) they kept their language, (3) they did not gossip, and (4) they were not adulterers. Again, we see that just like gossip was the cause of the exile, refraining from gossip and living in unity led to the redemption. The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 11a) says that just like the Jews left Egypt in the month of Nissan, so too is it the month most suitable for the final and complete redemption. There are abundant signs that this time is very close. It is up to us to guard our tongues from gossip and to unite with all Jews as one so as not to miss this opportunity of leaving our long and bitter exile in this month of Nissan.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel