The spiritual malady that manifested itself as a stain or boil struck a Jew’s home. If repentance did not take place, it would then appear on his or her clothing. If the sin that caused it was still left uncorrected, then it showed on the victim’s skin. The name the Torah gives this “disease’’ is tzaraat. The Talmud discusses several causes for this malady: conceit and haughtiness, stinginess and lashon hara (misuse of the gift of speech).
In his classic work on the subject, Shemirat Halashon, the Chofetz Chaim explains with a parable the lowliness of character of one who speaks negatively and harmfully about others.
Imagine a person who wakes up one morning and is unable to speak. His active mind is full of ideas and emotions, but he is incapable of expressing the myriad of thoughts that race through his mind. Suddenly he is a prisoner within himself, unable to relate to those whom he knows and loves. What a horrible sentence for a person to bear!
He begins a procession of doctors and tests. Baffled specialists with serious expressions shrug their shoulders in a show of frustration. What is a mute to do?
Then one day a specialist arrives in his town and hears of his dilemma. After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I think I know of a remedy for your disease. In a short time you will be as normal as you were before the onset of these terrible symptoms. Take two of these pills daily for seven days and then come to see me again.”
Writing on his note pad, the mute inquired as to the charge for this encouraging diagnosis and for the miraculous pills. “Oh, no — you don’t have to pay me!” said the doctor. “I pray that it will work for you and you will be happy again. That will be my pay.”
The mute went home and started the pill-taking regimen. On the sixth day he began to speak. That Friday night — Shabbat — his wife invited over family and close friends for a festive Shabbat meal. When they began to eat, the mute started belittling the doctor. He made fun of him and spoke negatively about him. He imitated his speech and mannerisms in an attempt to get his guests to laugh at his benefactor.
If he had a bad leg or other medical problem and acted so — how disgusting would his behavior be? But considering that it was the power of speech that was given to him by the victim of his insults, how much worse is his unacceptable behavior?
The power of speech is a gift given to man to enable him to pray, praise our Maker and thank Him. It is intended for positive use — for learning Torah, consoling and advising others. But what do people do? They use this present for forbidden speech. Lies, deceit and foul language are the extremes. Worse, however, is the use of the tongue to hurt other humans, to divide the unity of people, and to belittle the status of friends and colleagues. By rights, when the soul goes up to Heaven nightly, our Creator should take back His gift of speech. Instead, He waits patiently for each of us to make amends. Shouldn’t we accommodate our Benefactor?
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.