from the heart of jerusalem

Protecting our soul from lashon ha’rah and more


In September 2000, in the wake of the second intifada, my unit was activated up as part of the massive call-up of reserves that occurred as fighting broke out all over the country. We had no idea how long we would be in for, which of course made the experience all the more difficult. Our unit was tasked with patrolling the “border” between Efrat, where I live, and Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) and its environs, which lay a short ten-minute walk to the north.

One afternoon, I got an urgent call from one of our lookouts that there seemed to be a large crowd gathering in one of the Arab villages near Efrat, and that it seemed they were surrounding a Jewish man with a gun. As we approached we could see from a distance a large crowd of Arab villagers gathered around a kippah-wearing Jew.

As it turned out, the Jewish man caught in the middle of this crowd was someone I knew very well as he was the civilian deputy in charge of security for Efrat. It transpired that the Arabs in this village had seen that the council of Efrat was putting up street lights, in between Efrat and the Arab village, along the dirt road that led to Beit-Lechem. This was being done to prevent terrorists from sneaking in to the village at night and opening fire on Efrat, which of course would cause our men to fire back and enflame the area. The local Arab villagers, seeing a bulldozer and some engineers taking measurements, had become convinced that we were somehow trying to usurp their land, or perhaps fence them in (separating them from their vineyards that lie between Efrat and their village). So this deputy of security went in on his own to calm everybody down.

When we calmed everybody down, and got this fellow out of there, I really let him have it. He had endangered me and my men, not to mention himself; these were not the times to be walking into an Arab village alone with a gun, even if we had previously shared good relationships with these particular villagers.

But his response took the edge off the whole situation:

“You think I went in there because I care so much about those villagers? The reason I went in there was because I care so much about what this whole situation is doing to us. When we wake up in the morning, and this has all calmed down, I’m not worried about what we will have done to the Arabs, I am worried about what everything we have to do to the Arabs may do to us. It’s not their bodies I am worried about, it’s our soul.”

And while I disagreed with how he went about it, thinking back, it still makes me proud to be a part of an army and a people that think that way.

The key question, with all that is going on today, is how we protect our souls. When Jewish soldiers offer water to Arab terrorists, or clean up Arab homes after being forced to use them as lookout posts, what they are doing is not only about the maintaining Arab property, it is about protecting their Jewish souls.

In this week’s double portion of Tazriah and Metzorah, the Torah speaks of the metzorah, a person who is “diagnosed” by the Kohen as being afflicted by tzara’at, a spiritual disease akin to (but not identical with) leprosy. This affliction comes, according to our tradition, as the result of the sin (mistake) of speaking lashon hara, or slander. (See Maimonides Hilchot Tuma’t Tzara’at 16:10.) Once it is clear that an individual is in fact suffering from tzara’at, he must leave not only his home and family, but the camp of Israel as well.

Only after the proscribed period of time, can he begin the process of re-entering society.

Given that the malady in question is clearly viewed by Jewish tradition as a physical consequence of a spiritual mistake, one wonders why the process of mending the error of his ways necessitates being shunned by society and excluded from even physically being a part of the community. 

Maimonides suggests that the penalty of the metzorah is so severe precisely because the sin is so destructive to the fabric of society. If his slandering tongue was used for such negative purposes, it is better, for a while, for him to have no one to talk to. Indeed, the Talmud (Erchin 16b) suggests that since he caused husbands to separate from wives, and friends to become separated from each other, let him now experience the same and be separated from everyone.

A closer look at this issue, however, reveals that all is not as it seems. Our general perception is that the problem with slander (Lashon Ha’Ra) is that it causes people to think ill of each other, and distances the listener from those he is hearing slander about, causing rifts in society and separating us one from another. But the first time we find an allusion to leprosy and slander in the Torah would seem to belie this supposition: Moshe, in the midst of his dialogue with G-d at the burning bush, is suddenly made to experience the pain of tzara’at, (Shemot 4:6), which Rashi explains comes as a punishment for his slander of the Jewish people. In declaring that the Jewish people would not believe he was sent by G-d (4:1), Moshe is essentially slandering the Jewish people by suggesting they would not believe the messenger of G-d. For this, suggests Rashi, Moshe is punished with a degree of tzara’at which, as mentioned is the consequence of slander. But what transgression has actually occurred? 

It is ludicrous to suggest that hearing the “slander” of Moshe somehow impacts G-d’s perception of the Jewish people. And it is equally absurd to imagine such slander can cause G-d to distance Himself from the Jewish people. And the case of Moshe is not unique, as we find similar occurrences with both Eliayhu (Melachim I, 19:10) as well as Yishayahu (6:5), who are both punished for their harsh criticism of the Jewish people, even though they were speaking to no one else but G-d!

Perhaps the transgression of slander is so severe, not only for its impact on society, but as well (and perhaps even foremost) for its impact on the speaker him or herself.

If a person can speak negatively about his or her fellow human being, then he or she does not really see the image of G-d that is part of every human being, and that will gradually destroy the speaker’s soul. If I speak ill of another person, I am not just damaging them (and their reputation), I am actually damaging myself as well. 

Which leads us to a crucial idea that Rav Avigdor Nevehnsahl points out in his Sichot Le’Sefer VaYikra, and that is the relationship between where we are spiritually and where we are physically.

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol doesn’t just walk straight in to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He first has to undergo an extensive process, which prepares him for that moment. He too, like the metzorah, must leave his home for the seven days prior to Yom Kippur, only he is headed in the opposite direction: he actually lives on the Temple mount for seven days before he is considered ready to enter the temple and the Holy of Holies. Apparently, part of the process, which elevates him spiritually, is that he lives in a place of sanctity. And where he is living is actually a part of who he is trying to become. 

Conversely, the metzorah is forced out of the camp precisely because his soul is on a lower level. When he speaks slander, he damages his soul, and the desolation he may cause others, is first and foremost the desolation that affects himself. So he has to spend some time in a place of desolation, as befitting the spiritual state of his own soul.

This, incidentally, is why, when the Jewish people, through their misdeeds, reach a particularly low spiritual level and were no longer worthy of living as a people in the land of Israel, and were ultimately forced into exile. Even today, when we are in the midst of the incredible process of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, we are still far from being worthy of a holy united city with a Beit Ha’Mikdash, a home of sanctity, on the Temple mount.

We often assume we are in great shape because, after all, we are doing so many wonderful things. We (hopefully) give a lot of tzedakah; we celebrate Shabbat, and eat the most kosher meat in town. We have only to look around, suggests the Torah, and see where we are, to realize, to some extent, who we are.

The problem with slander is that it destroys one’s perception of those around us, and that destroys our soul. Which is why such a person is separated from society, and sent off to be alone. Because he needs time to do some serious thinking or, quite literally, soul-searching.

And when we yearn for the people and places we miss and see how beautiful they truly are, then we are and will be at last ready, to come home.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.