We are often taught from a young age that Miriam spoke Lashon HaRa about Moshe and was therefore punished with Tzara’at. However, we often push aside a question that is fundamental to the entire discussion. What is it about Lashon HaRa that makes the punishment so severe?
A Mashal may be able to shed light on the situation. A young boy had trouble controlling his temper. He once approached his father and said, “Dad, I want to learn how to control my anger.” His father thought about this request and gave his son a bag of thumbtacks, instructing his son to put a pin into the wall every time he says something he regrets, until he doesn’t lose his temper at all. This was a hard task for the son. The 1st day, he drilled 38 pins into the wall. Slowly and gradually, this number shrunk, until the day finally came when he didn’t lose his temper once. The boy enthusiastically ran to his father and said, “Dad, I did it! I didn’t lose my temper!” His father was very pleased, but then said, “From now on, every day you don’t lose your temper, I want you to take one thumbtack out of the wall.” This was an even longer process, but eventually the day came when all of the thumbtacks were out of the wall. His father then took him to the wall and said, “When you take a thumbtack and put it into the wall, it will leave a mark even after it is removed. Your words have the same effect.” Once we say anything, positive or negative, we can’t take it back. Our words will always be out there.
Baruch Hashem we have a Mitzvah to remember to avoid speaking Lashon HaRa every day. In many Siddurim, a list of the ‘Sheish Zechirot,’ ‘six remembrances,’ is recorded after Shacharit. One of these is to remember the Lashon HaRa that Miriam spoke. This Mitzvah should be a constant reminder of how severe the punishment for Lashon HaRa is.
In his book Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson A Day, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman explains that, “peace is precious, for in its merit, God does not allow the Satan to harm the Jewish People, even when idolatry is found among them.” The first step to maintaining peace among the Jewish nation is to refrain from speaking Lashon HaRa. Furthermore, Rabi Shimon Ben Gamliel in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:18) states that, “the world exists due to three things: justice, truth and peace.” It is no coincidence that every day we conclude Shemoneh Esrei, the core of our Tefilah, with a blessing that mentions Hashem’s role in peace. The first step to insuring that we don’t speak Lashon HaRa and don’t incur the penalty of Tzara’at is establishing peace within Am Yisrael.