This week’s Sedra, Tazria-Metzora, tells us about the tzaraas, a kind of supernatural plague which affects those who engage in the sin of loshon hora (evil speech), along with their homes and belongings. This unsightly growth is linked to loshon hora for a reason. It represents the effect of our speech on others; when we speak negatively about someone, we hurt them, and our words turn into a kind of plague, just like the tzaraas.
When we hear about our real or imagined faults, in a way that does not foster Ahavos Yisroel, and when we hear rumours about ourselves, they plague us and become real. Our words are a self fulfilling prophecy; insulting someone’s intelligence causes them to lose confidence in how clever they are, and thus act unintelligently, fuelling more insults. It’s a cruel cycle, and just like the tzaraas which effected those who spoke negatively, it is painful and humiliating.
A plague isn’t just a physical sickness or blemish, like we read about in this week’s Parsha. It can also be an emotional onslaught. Quite often, it’s our feelings which incapacitate us and make us loathe ourselves. These sorts of feelings are only fuelled by negative speech, which could instead be turned around into empowering speech. Rather than criticising, we should advise. Rather than focussing on shortcomings, we should praise strengths. It’s important not to become haughty or encourage pride, but that doesn’t mean that negative words are constructive or necessary.
The cure for tzaraas is a complex one. The afflicted person must be purified by the Kohen, in a ceremony involving two birds, spring water, cedarwood, scarlet thread, and hyssop. Today, these ingredients aren’t relevant, but loshon hora is. Luckily, there is a much simpler way in which we can repent for our evil speech. In place of a purifying ceremony, we can use purifying words. We can clean up our speech, and we can rectify our wrongs, by changing our behaviour and apologising. Many of us have said things we regret over the past days or weeks; and the tzaraas like effects of our speech may stil be felt by the other party. If we make amends, we can cleanse ourselves and those we have hurt, undoing damage and fostering good relationships.
When we read about the tzaraas this week, we may recoil at it’s description, but we should remember that it is merely a visualisation of loshon hora’s effects. If we decide to purify our speech, we purify not only ourselves, but those around us. And this is the true power of words; when they can either cure or kill, we should always choose to cure with them. In doing so, we honour ourselves, we honour our peers, and we honour Hashem.