This week’s Parashah, Parashat Metzora, deals with many aspects of Tzara’at. The Torah goes into great detail to explain what Tzara’at is, how one contracts it, and what to do if someone gets Tzara’at. Interestingly, the Torah devotes two Parashiyot to the various laws of Tzara’at. Why does the Torah need to go into such depth regarding Tzara’at?
To answer this question, we must first understand what Tzara’at is, and, more importantly, why one w ould get it. Chazal teach that Tzara’at was the punishment for speaking Lashon HaRa about another person (Eirachin 16a). For example, we see that when Miryam speaks Lashon HaRa about Moshe, she is punished with Tzara'at (BeMidbar 12:10). However, this seems like a strange punishment. On the one hand, what is so bad about speaking spitefully about someone else that would make one who speaks Lashon HaRa deserving of any punishment at all? After all, Lashon HaRa does not cause any physical harm. On the other hand, if speaking Lashon HaRa is as bad as the Torah makes it seem, why is there not a more severe punishment? Why just a temporary skin disease?
To answer the first question, we should note that speaking Lashon HaRa is extremely damaging. The old saying that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is false. A physical pain heals in a few weeks or months. However, derogatory comments can leave lasting effects for years or even an entire lifetime. For instance, if someone is applying for a job and someone else makes a comment saying that this applicant does not seem trustworthy, that could result in that applicant not receiving that job. And when the gossip spreads, as it often does, other companies may not hire the applicant as well. The Torah here is making a point that Lashon HaRa may not seem so bad, but in reality, it can be devastating. People must always watch what they say, for Lashon HaRa can destroy, in one mere minute, a reputation that took years to forge. Regarding the laws of Lashon HaRa, the Gemara teaches that it is so imperative that one not speak Lashon HaRa that people should refrain from even mentioning the good traits of a person, for that may lead to mentioning the bad traits of that person (Bava Batra 164b).
Now that we understand how bad Lashon HaRa is, we must ask, how does the punishment of Tzara’at fit the crime of Lashon HaRa? How is it Middah KeNeged Middah, the punishment matching the sin? However, when we understand the reasons that someone may speak Lashon HaRa, it seems quite obvious why Tzara'at is the appropriate punishment. When someone says something derogatory about someone else, it is because that person believes that by lowering the other person’s status, he will raise his own status. However, belittling another person does not make one a better person. When someone speaks Lashon HaRa and is afflicted with Tzara’at (and checked by a Kohein), that person becomes a Metzora. A Metzora literally becomes an outcast in society; he must leave the camps of Israel and live in isolation (VaYikra 14:8). A Metzora is looked down upon and avoided by others; he is considered impure. This treatment of a Metzora is exactly how a Metzora treated the person about whom he spoke Lashon HaRa. When a Metzora is put into the situation in which he is treated like his victim, we hope that he learns his lesson and refrains from speaking Lashon HaRa ever again.
Lashon HaRa truly is one of the worst sins a person can commit. The many unforeseen consequences that emerge just from the small things one may say about another person are why the Torah goes to great lengths to forbid Lashon HaRa. We must learn from the example of the Chafetz Chaim, possibly the best role model for avoiding Lashon HaRa. He often said “Keep your mouth from evil talk and live a life of peace” (Derech Eretz Zuta). May we all be blessed with God’s help to avoid speaking and even listening to Lashon HaRa.