In this week's Parsha, we learn about Tzoraas, commonly called leprosy, a disease that is understood by Chazal to be the punishment for speaking Lashon Hora, talking spitefully of one's fellow man. We see this, among other places, from the fact that Miriam was stricken with leprosy when she spoke Lashon Hora about Moshe (במדבר י"ב:א'-י'). From this we see that speaking Lashon Hora is indeed a terrible sin. At first glance, speaking Lashon Hora would appear to be a comparatively minor misdeed. After all, making a nasty comment about someone seems much less damaging than physically assaulting a person. This statement, however, is not necessarily true. Granted, one who has just been physically hurt feels a very definite pain, but usually, the pain subsides after a short while. A disparaging remark, on the other hand, can linger on to haunt the victim for years. Word spreads easily, especially Lashon Hora. People are very often ready to hear something bad about another person. For this reason, one should measure his words very carefully.
The Chofetz Chaim's caution in avoiding Lashon Hora is well known. A story is told that the Chofetz Chaim once paid a visit to a prospective supporter of his Yeshiva. When he arrived, the man, a wealthy businessman, was in the middle of preparing a telegram to send to his business partner. He rose to greet the Chofetz Chaim and engaged him in conversation. Soon, it became apparent to the Chofetz Chaim that the discussion was leading to talk about a certain individual, and that Lashon Hora might ensue. The Chofetz Chaim suddenly rose and glanced at the telegram on the man's desk. "It looks as if you have carefully thought out every single word here," he commented, "for you've rewritten this several times." "I certainly have," said the man. "Every unnecessary word here will cost me extra money, since I must pay for the telegram by the word." The Chofetz Chaim marvelled at this. "If only everyone were as careful as this when choosing what to say!" he noted. "Don't people know that every unnecessary word they speak will cost them dearly in Olam HaBo?"
People are generally very careful about what they put down in writing, even when they don't have to pay for each word. One must be very careful with a legal document, for example, to make sure that each word is clear and that no misunderstandings will arise. People will thus review such documents many times before putting their name to it. The Chofetz Chaim's point was that we should be no less careful about the words we say. We should measure them as carefully as we measure the words we put down in writing. We must learn from all this a very important lesson. Before speaking, one must ask himself, "What is the purpose of what I am about to say? What will it accomplish? What effects will it have?" Once one gets in the habit of asking oneself these questions, one will always think before he speaks. This will enable him to overcome the tendency of speaking Lashon Hora.