Tzaraat and Shmirat HaDibbur (Guarding One’s Tongue)

          Rabbi Berel Wein tells a story about a man asking his rabbi if a chicken was kosher. After getting the facts, the rabbi remained uncertain about the answer. Some would have said that with the doubt the rabbi should automatically declare the chicken treyf. This rabbi chose a different approach. He first looked at the person and saw if he could afford to buy a new chicken. If he could, the rabbi would say the chicken is treyf; if not, the rabbi would say it is kosher.

          Why tell this story? It teaches us that one needs to consider the situation and the people involved before jumping to conclusions. It can be far easier, especially when information with an agenda is spoon-fed to us, to form an opinion or take a position based on incomplete knowledge. As we celebrate Israel’s 75th Birthday, hearing Megilat HaAtzmaut and from Dr. Matthew S. Shugart on Israel’s Judicial Reform tomorrow morning, we need to be mindful of where we get information on Israel, just as we do about where we get it on every other topic, and whether it is verifiable. So much is out there and it is too easy to read one article or see one news snippet and jump to a conclusion.

That danger leads us to Parshat Tazria-Metzora. In the Bible, tzaraat is a skin disease that can take many different forms, and in particularly bad cases can manifest itself on one’s clothing, belongings, and house, in addition to the skin. According to the rabbis, tzaraat is caused by sin (specifically the sin of Motzi Shem Ra, giving someone else a bad name). This makes it a disease like no others; part medical condition, part spiritual pathology.[1]

Through the class Awareness in Action from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I learned to equate Malchut or Shechinah, the attribute of Gd which is closest to us, to Shmirat HaDibbur, guarding one’s tongue-that by refraining from bad speech we are increasing Gd’s presence in the world. The steps taken when emotions got hot were hitlamdut, non-judgemental awareness of sensations, emotions and thoughts; the bechirah point, becoming aware of the choice of following one’s reactive habit or additional choices for action/inaction; and teshuvah, returning to one’s intention. For example, if something has been bubbling up emotionally, rather than an impulsive reaction one needs to take a step back and become aware of what’s going on; make a choice whether to follow habituated behavior or go in a different direction; and then act in a way that is the best version of oneself.

In Mercaz Religious School using the Shalom Learning Curriculum we taught Koach HaDibbur, the strength on one’s words. Judaism is not a religion of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”; rather it is a religion where words have great power and must be used with extreme care and caution.

Today, if we speak badly of others, we will not have a physiological change as in Tzaraat. That makes it all the more important to guard our words. We must follow the text by Mar son of Ravina at the end of the Amidah:

אלהי נצר לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה

ולמקללי נפשי תדם ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה

פתח לבי בתורתך ומצוותך תרדף נפשי

“My God, guard my tongue from evil
And my lips from [speaking] deceit
And [to] those that curse me, let my soul be silent
And let my soul be like the dust to all.
Open my heart to Your Torah and to Your Commandments”[2]

          Lashon HaRa, speaking badly about someone else even if it is true, is in my opinion the most difficult commandment, because many of us speak without a second thought. We are works in progress in trying to be B’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of Gd. Gd spoke and created the world. We speak and create either positivity/good energy or negativity/bad energy with our words. We have the potential to build others up or to take them down with our speech. There is power to our words which is why we need to guard them carefully-especially in the age of social media, where so much can be screen shared or sent without a second thought. Shmirat HaDibbur is so important today, not because one will be punished with Tzaraat but rather because our words matter, can be more easily transmitted than ever before, and cannot be taken back/removed from the ethernet. Going back to Rabbi Wein’s story, rather than a quick judgement and reaction, we need to take the time we need to give a proper response to whatever situation we face, whether public or private; written, phone, or face-to-face; and being thoughtful and ultimately decisive rather than impulsive or perseverating. Ken Yhi Ratzon-may it be our will to do so.

[1] Tzaraat–A Biblical Affliction | My Jewish Learning

[2] Prayer at end of the Silent Amidah


2 thoughts on “Tzaraat and Shmirat HaDibbur (Guarding One’s Tongue)

  1. Wonderful drusha on a very difficult topic. Tazria was my bar mitzvah parsha. My best to you and your family.



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