There are certain things we are told that we never forget. Think about your childhood. I bet that some insecurity you still have today as an adult is connected to something someone told you that never went away. It could be a teacher who said you were “stupid” or a sibling or friend who made fun of you and called you “ugly.” Words stick. And they become a part of us, which makes it hard to let go. When someone says something either to us or behind our back that is negative, it makes us feel alone, unwanted and isolated. So it should come as no surprise then, that the Torah’s approach to dealing with the one that creates these negative feelings is to punish the gossiper in a very similar way.
In the Torah portion, “Tazria,” we read about “tzara’at,” which is commonly mistranslated as “leprosy.” Unlike leprosy, however, tzara’at are spiritual blemishes, and they appear first on one’s clothing, the walls of a person’s home and, ultimately, on the body. These blemishes are the physical manifestation that correlates to the spiritual state of a person who engages in “lashon hara,” which is normally understood as derogatory speech, usually about another person. Developing tzara’at is a gradual process, and when unmitigated, it leads to a procedure in which the High Priest proclaims the gossipmonger to be “unclean,” and expels that person from the community to live alone until cured.
When There’s Something Greater Than Truth
Unlike the secular laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip-monger that “out.” As a matter of fact, there is a presumption that the person is convinced that his or her gossip is true! If, on the other hand, the person was spreading false gossip – slander – then it’s an entirely different sin, because we should not misuse the power of speech to lie. After all, truth is a Divine attribute, and we want to emulate divinity.
So how can we be punished for our negative speech – when what we say is true? And why is the punishment one of expulsion and isolation? After all, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” According to the Torah, however, not only do our words hurt the person we are talking about, but also they hurt the person who is speaking lashon hara - as well as the person or people listening to it. It’s the perfect trifecta of bad. But is that fair?
We often think that our perceptions and opinions about a situation or person are the “truth,” which makes us feel justified and right. We create stories in our head, and then we live in the stories we create, not even knowing the difference between story and “fact.” We decide the truth, and anyone who doesn’t buy into our stories is also wrong.
Deep down, the source of all conflict lies in the ego’s incessant need to be right, and the lengths we go to defend that need. It is this form of the ego that disintegrates relationships, undermines the fabric of society and disconnects us from the oneness and unity we should feel with our fellow and even with the natural world – hence, even our inanimate objects are affected with the blemishes of tzazar’at.
The Mind-Body Connection
Today, the focus of wellness is on the mind-body connection. Torah, on the other hand, teaches us the connection between mind-body-and soul. Gossip is only possible when we are ruled by the unhealthy part of our ego, which is rigidly self-absorbed and sees itself as wholly separate from the other person, and therefore unaffected by any pain that is caused.
Such a person is already feeling disconnected from others, from the community, from G-d and even from him or herself. Therefore, the punishment of expulsion is to help the person understand this, by getting the person to feel that pain of separateness that his or her actions have caused and then return to the state of connection. It also helps that person understand the pain that the gossip caused the victim by experiencing those very same feelings, leading to a state of empathy. When we empathize with another, we are on the same team, so it is a natural antidote to gossip.
Being expelled, cast out, etc. is so painful for a psyche that fears disconnection that it is a powerful form of control. We are wired for connection. Our need for love and belonging is one of our highest needs. But when we are driven by our unhealthy ego, we can override our wiring.
In the wilderness, where we lived in a heightened state of holiness, a mind-body-soul connection betrayed or conveyed our true inner state. The outer was an accurate reflection of the inner. What you said behind someone’s back became written on your body. We simply couldn’t fake our way out – or back in.
When the person truly felt the pain of disconnection and then corrected him or herself – mind, body, and soul – so that the body was visibly healed from its blemishes – then, and only then was that person ready for the process of re-entry into the community.
The Torah is not trying to break us with an elaborate game of “Time Out;” rather, the Torah is teaching us how to stay in the game. It’s not just that the person recovers to his or her former state, but that the person should grow to attain a new level of awareness – post-traumatic-growth syndrome!
A society that allows unhealthy egos to run rampant, causing divisiveness and fragmentation, is unhealthy. A holy society, on the other hand, recognizes the deeper understanding that in diminishing others, we also diminish ourselves. True peace is based on wholeness and connection. When we check our unhealthy egos at the door, the gates of harmony open wide.
Internalize & Actualize:
1. Write down something that someone said to you that hurt you greatly. What emotions do you associate with how that statement made you feel? Now, rewrite that statement into something positive and growth-oriented. No matter what the insult was, turn it into something that you can use in a healthy way (i.e., I was called fat, it filled me with shame and embarrassment, but I am going to use it to motivate me to eat well and exercise so that I feel good about myself and body…)
2. Now write down something you said about someone else which should not have been said. How do you think it made that person feel? After saying it, how did it make you feel? Write down what emotions motivated you to say it and if those emotions were healthy or not.
3. We know that speech is powerful and helps create our reality. Write down 5 statements that you want to hear on a daily basis. Then put them in different places in your home on a card (i.e., “You are worthy.” “You are powerful.” “You are beautiful.” “You have so much to give.” Etc.) After one week, write down any changes you noticed after saying these out loud to yourself on a daily basis. (Try saying them to others as well and notice their reaction!)