Saturday 22nd April 2023 16th Day of the Omer 1st Iyyar 5783
Leviticus 12:1 – 15:53; Isaiah 66: 1-24; Mark 9:40 -50
The Torah continues with the laws of physical and spiritual purity. The focus of this portion is upon tzora'as, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted home, clothes, and then one’s skin – unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah.
There are three types of speech transgressions:
1) Loshon hora (literally “evil tongue”) – making a derogatory or damaging statement about someone even though you are speaking the truth.
2) Motzie shem ra – slander – where what is spoken is negative and false. 3) Rechilus (literally “tale bearing”) – telling someone the negative things another person said about him or did against him.
A few weeks ago, Gallup released the results of a poll taken last year of Americans and their opinions about the reliability and trustworthiness of the national news and media outlets. While most of the results are startling, they are, unfortunately, not surprising.
Fifty percent of Americans feel most national news organizations intend to mislead, misinform, or persuade the public and fifty-two percent say that they don’t care about the best interests of their readers, viewers, or listeners. Forty-five percent of Americans who name a cable news outlet (CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC) as their top news source exhibit very little trust in national news organizations overall; only nineteen percent report having a high trust.
The good news is that Americans are not total idiots. At least not most of them. Watching the same news on three different channels with three different versions of it will inevitably sow some distrust. It’s totally absurd; in general, we have no idea if the news we are watching is accurate, but at least we are up to date on the latest celebrity gossip.
This week's Torah reading is particularly pertinent to this issue. This Shabbat we actually read two Torah portions and they each discuss the detailed laws regarding the consequences of speaking loshon hora – gossip.
The punishment of which we speak is called tzora’as – this has been commonly mistranslated as leprosy. Leprosy mentioned in the Torah is not Hansen’s disease caused by the germ mycobacterium leprae. Rather, it was a physical symptom caused by a spiritual defect. This affliction only came to individuals on an elevated spiritual level, those whose bodily functions were subject to their spiritual state. Thus, tzora’as isn’t merely a disease caused by a bacterial infection (which is what leprosy is); it is a very specific punishment sent from heaven for the sin of loshon hora.
The Torah first introduced this concept at the beginning of the book of Exodus when Moses’ hand turned white “like snow” from tzora’as (Exodus 3:6). The commentators (ad loc) explain that it was because he spoke loshon hora of the Jewish people. Similarly, his sister Miriam was afflicted with tzora’as when she spoke negatively about him (Numbers 12:10).
Strangely enough, loshon hora is considered one of the worst sins a person can commit, as heinous as murder, adultery, and idol worship (Talmud Arachin 15b). Yet the punishment, tzora’as, seems to be a minor one. After all, the size of the tzora’as discoloration of the skin can be relatively small, around the size of a nickel. It is difficult to understand how a relatively small mark on one’s body is a fitting punishment for something considered to be such a sever sin.
According to our traditions, God punishes in a very strict system of quid pro quo, nothing more and nothing less than a transgression deserves. How is this small discoloration a proper punishment for the terrible sin of loshon hora?
Though, perhaps the most perplexing aspect is that gossip only qualify as loshon hora if what is being said about the victim is true. As an example: If I know someone failed the bar exam three times and I start telling people simply to hurt or embarrass him, I have transgressed the sin of loshon hora. Similarly, if I know someone who in his youth was a fall down drunk with a gambling addiction and I share that information to hurt him, I have transgressed the sin of loshon hora.
However, if I make up a complete lie and say that someone, while serving in Iraq, committed heinous war crimes or that he was a dishonest businessman, all the while knowing that what I am saying is a lie, I have not violated the prohibition of loshon hora. In such a situation, I have violated a different prohibition against slander known as motzei shem ra – giving someone a bad reputation. This sin is not treated as severely as loshon hora.
This begs the question; how can telling the truth about someone be more heinous than fabricating a lie about them?
One of the most renowned photos of the 20th century was taken by famous war photographer Eddie Adams. The photo, named “Saigon Execution,” depicted a general in the South Vietnamese army (America’s ally) killing, in appalling cold blooded fashion, a Vietcong prisoner. This notorious photo has appeared in just about every school textbook and history book written on the Vietnam War.
Eddie Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photo and, perhaps more importantly, his photo deeply contributed to the American public’s conflict and ambivalence as to whether or not to support the Vietnam war.
The New York Times (when they and most media outlets still had a conscience) was extremely hesitant to publish his photo for it depicted the brutality of America’s ally, and only consented to run it side by side with a photo of a child slain by the Vietcong army, to give the story some measure of a balance. Nonetheless, Eddie Adams’ photo was the one that burned into the American psyche.
Yet, Adams himself lamented, “Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.”
The actual circumstances from the incident (obviously not captured on film) were that the prisoner had just ambushed this general’s regiment and murdered three of his soldiers. It was a hot and miserable day and tempers were running very high. The general, who actually had a reputation for compassion, made the decision to execute the prisoner for he feared he would lose control of his regiment who were furious that this Vietcong had just murdered three of their fellow soldiers.
So General Nguyen Ngoc Loan made the perhaps questionable decision to enact vigilante justice. But because of the terrible backlash from that photo, the general was stripped of his command and discharged from the army. Eddie Adams felt so guilty that he supported him and his family until the end of his life.
This story gives us a great insight into the evil of loshon hora. Loshon hora, while technically true, (the general did in fact murder the Vietcong who ambushed his regiment), is actually the most horrible kind of lie. Loshon hora is exactly like a photograph – a fleeting glimpse of a terrible act that a person committed.
But what are the circumstances? Who is that person in reality? Is it fair to paint that person’s entire being by that fleeting act; is that who they really are?
No one is proud of every moment of their life (there is a well-known saying that no one growing up in the digital era will ever be elected to public office because there are photographs of just about everyone in compromising circumstances). Herein we find the depth of why saying something true about someone is worse than telling a lie about them.
If someone spreads an evil lie about me, I can vehemently deny it. After all, I know it isn’t true and I can hold my head up high because I know it’s a lie. Yes, it may be frustrating to prove my innocence, but I can look myself in the mirror knowing that it isn’t true. But when I repeat a true story about someone, they have to admit that it was true. There is simply no easy way to defend it. At that point the burden of proof is to explain how you aren’t that type of person and why that one episode shouldn’t define you. In essence, that one episode, small as it might be in terms of the entirety of a person’s life, has now come to define them. It is perhaps the greatest lie of all.
This is why the punishment for loshon hora is tzora’as. A little discoloration, even the size of a nickel, comes to define the whole person as a sinner who needs atonement.
This is a perfect example of God’s attribute quid pro quo justice; for it is exactly what the person speaking loshon hora did – he took a relatively small (when compared with a person’s entire life) and embarrassing vignette and portrayed that to be the entirety of an individual’s identity. So too tzora’as, a small discoloration, comes to define the entirety of the sinner.
The primary motivation in speaking gossip is to try and feel better about yourself by pushing others down. When a person has low self-esteem, they may feel inadequate and insecure about themselves. They often look around and compare themselves to others and feel like they don’t measure up. Speaking loshon hora might make them temporarily feel better about themselves, but it has terrible consequences – it destroys reputations and relationships and breaks trust with others.
The feeling of superiority is short-lived and it leads to a downward cycle of negativity that only serves to further exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and isolation. A much better antidote to low self-esteem is focusing on self-growth, personal accomplishment, positive self-talk, and developing relationships based on mutual respect and trust.
We must always employ the dictum from the Torah and take extra care to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves.