Are you a "Mass-Spreader?"

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Are You a “Mass-Spreader”? 

Not of the Covid-19 virus, G-d forbid.  But of the on-going pandemic of lashon hara -- harmful speech?    

This week’s combined Torah portions Tazria-Metzora have traditionally been interpreted as dealing with the topic of lashon hara.  “מצורע” “metzora”– usually translated as “leper,” although whether the Torah was referring to that specific disease is disputed -- has been homiletically construed phonetically as ״מוצא-שם-רע״ motzi-shem-ra” – one who brings forth a bad name.  Tzoraas was the affliction from which the metzora was suffering (Leviticus 13:2). 

According to Maimonides, tzoraas was a supernatural disease sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking lashon hara.  First, it attacked the person's house. If he repented, it would spread no further. If, however, he continued speaking against others, his clothes would contract tzoraas. Again, if he repented, it would stop spreading. If he did not, then his body would be afflicted with tzoraas. (Hilchos Tumas Tzoraas 16:10). The Chofetz Chayim pointed out that from the severity of the tumah (spiritual uncleanliness) of the metzora (the person afflicted with tzoraas), we have an indication of the severity of loshon hora. This is the only type of tumah in which the person was required to stay entirely out of the camp or city where other people live. (Shmiras Haloshon 1:5). Isolation – “social distancing” was required. (Leviticus 13:46). 

In accordance with the concept that tzoraas is a punishment for speaking loshon hora, the Chasan Sofer said that the Torah verse describing skin abnormalities points to three reasons why people might speak against others1) S’ait (a swelling or rising). A person might speak against others to raise his own stature. Others have faults which he feels he does not have. 2) Sapachat (a scab): A person might join (sipuach) a group of people who speak against others. In ordinary circumstances he would not speak loshon hora, but he tries to be sociable and behave like people around him3) Baheret (a bright spot): A person might have done something against someone else, and in an attempt to exonerate himself, he speaks against that person. That is, he clarifies (bahir) the reason for his behaviorA person should be aware of his motive for speaking loshon hora and then work on correcting himself.  (Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, 1977, Aish HaTorah, p. 231.) 

When we speak of others, are we seeking to compare ourselves favorably to the subject of our comments?  To be sociable and gain group approval and support?  To exonerate ourselves in the eyes of others?  For sheer entertainment?  The risk of an improper motive is high.  

Of course, thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to create and/or to spread gossip, rumors, suspicion, unfounded criticisms, privacy invasion, and misinformation.   

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, pointed out that speech is what holds society together. Lashon hara – evil speech -- is so destructive because it undermines trust, making people suspicious about one another and thus weakening the bonds that hold the group together. If unchecked, he warned, lashon hara will destroy any group it attacks -- a family, a team, a community, even a nation. 

Hence its uniquely malicious character; lashon hara uses the power of language to weaken the very thing language was brought into being to create, namely, the trust that sustains the social bond.  …. Rabbi Sacks concluded: Never speak ill of others, and stay far from those who do. (Jonathan Sacks, Essay on Ethics (2016, Maggid & The Orthodox Union), pp. 180-2.)      

The risk of doing harm in speaking about others is so great that the general rule we should follow is “Don’t talk about people at all.”  That this rule may strike us as outlandish and impossible itself shows how much of our time and energy – and, unfortunately, entertainment value – we spend talking – and texting -- about others.  But the damage we and others do, knowingly and unknowingly, is immense.  Given the immediacy and scope by which our comments are transmitted, a thoughtless word – or even an innocent word misconstrued – can ruin a business, reputation, or friendship.  Unfortunately, we tend to believe negative comments about others, even if those comments are inconsistent with our own knowledge and experience of the target person, group, organization, or business, and even if the speaker is biased or has an ulterior motive.  Words have tremendous power to hurt and destroy.   

Of course there are exceptions to the rule “Don’t talk about people at all,” but they are few and apply infrequently.  Before speaking about others, we should ask ourselves:  

1. Am I certain that what I am about to say is true

2. Even if true, is it necessary that I say it? Is it vital that the person with whom I am communicating has this information? 

3.  What impact will my statement/comments likely have on:

a.  the person about whom I will speak?

b.  the information recipient(s)?

c.  myself?

As an important corollary, when others begin to discuss others, we should usually not allow ourselves to listen.  We should change the subject, or leave the conversation.  This will not only protect ourselves and others, it will hopefully discourage others from spreading the lashon hara infection. 

The three stages of life are: learning how to speak, learning what to speak, and learning not to speak. The third stage is the hardest, but also the most important, because it prevents harm.  Silence is the mask we all need to wear – both over our mouths and on our fingertips at the computer keyboard -- to protect others and ourselves from the evil speech pandemic.  Let us not be among those who spread or receive infection with words.  

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