Torah thought forFriday 30 Nissan 5783 April 21 2023

Parshiyot Tazria Metzora

(From the teachings of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztvk”l)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)

The Severity of the Sin of Lashon Hara and the Danger of Being a Journalist

In the Parashah, our Holy Torah speaks at length about the leper.

Our chachamim in the Gemara (Eirachin 17a) said, why does the leper deserve such a punishment? Due to the sin of lashon hara! A person who mixes with others, goes to so and so and tells them, “this is what so and so said about you”, he is a gossiper, and commits a grave sin [see Vayikra 19:16]. Why are you concerned at all? Why are you required to go and rub up people the wrong way? Therefore Heaven afflicts them with leprosy, “When a person has the mark of the leprous curse…Unclean! Unclean! He must call out….he must remain alone, and his place shall be outside the camp” (Vayikra 13:45-46). People may not come close to them within 6 feet. There is no impurity in the world that conveys impurity via an “ohel” [broadly defined as a tent or home like covering] except for the impurity of those deceased [see Bamidbar 19:14]. A cohen may not enter a covered area where there is a dead person, and yet to that very thing a leper is compared to, the Torah compares them to a dead person. They reside outside the camp in an exposed area. For if they stay in an “ohel” it is forbidden to enter that home and they must announce, “Impure! Impure!”, so as to prevent people stumbling across them. What a disgrace! What a disgrace and a disaster!

This is the fate of the person that spoke lashon hara! Rabbotai, people must be cautious. Now due to our many sins, there are those who stumble in the sin of lashon hara. Especially reporters and journalists, many of them are habitual speakers of lashon hara, their purpose is to speak about people, and what can they write? They don’t write good things, they only abuse people, this is called lashon hara and is a grave sin! The Gemara (Eirachin) comments on the passuk, “May Hashem excise all lips of smooth talk, the tongue which speaks boastfully” (Tehillim 12:4), this refers to habitual speakers of lashon hara that due to the enormity of the sin it is considered as if they are liable to excommunication for what they spoken. Lashon hara is equated with idolatry, sexual immorality and murder combined. Our chachamim deduced this through Midrashic interpretation known as a gezeira shava. Three of the Torah’s most severe sins, the gravest, a person who talks lashon hara is equated as severe as them.

Therefore I pity the journalists who don’t realise the severity of the sin of lashon hara. They have the “rule” of the State, “the rule of lashon hara”, but this rule isn’t a rule of the Holy Torah. According to the rule of the State, if they said something which is true, they have done nothing wrong. But according to the Holy Torah, even if they said something which is true, they transgress this severe sin, for they abuse their fellow. In times gone by they would be afflicted with leprosy for this sin, but today, in these generations, there is no leprosy. It is possible that this is because we don’t have full autonomy of governance, a governance of Torah. Therefore even if there was leprosy, the leper wouldn’t be excluded. There would be no one to declare, “he must remain alone, and his place shall be outside the camp”, therefore in our times there is no leprosy. If there is a G-d-fearing journalist, they must be cautious not to transgress the sin of lashon hara. I pity them, I have mercy upon them that they not stumble in this sin.

The author of Chovot HaLevavot [authored by Rabbeinu Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda  z”l 1040-1080] writes about a person who spoke lashon hara about their fellow, for example Reuven who spoke about Shimon, and Shimon heard that Reuven spoke about him and didn’t react in anyway. He remained silent and didn’t respond. That man, Reuven, is pitiful, for all the mitzvot that he has fulfilled in his life are transferred to Shimon that he offended, and all of Shimon’s sins are transferred to Reuven the offender.

This Reuven, performed mitzvot, and indeed did many mitzvot, bought a lulav, bought tefillin and put them on, but he spoke lashon hara, and all his mitzvot are transferred to Shimon who was offended and didn’t offend in retaliation. This is very serious!

There is a verse in Kohelet that appears inaccessible to fathom, “Let not your mouth bring guilt on your flesh, and do not tell the messenger that it was in error. Why should Hashem be angered by your speech and destroy the work of your hands?” (5:5). What does this passuk mean?

According to the words of the Chovot HaLevavot, the passuk may be understood. “Let not your mouth bring guilt on your flesh,” means a person who spoke lashon hara, sins with their mouth, and indeed they will come on judgement day before Hashem. After 120 years, they come before Hashem, they open their ledger to see their deeds. They open one ledger of sins and one of mitzvot. They begin reading: On such a date you did this and this and on another day this and this. Whilst the person thinks in their heart, I’ve done nothing! Waiting until they open the ledger of mitzvot and see that it is all blank, nothing there! They are astonished, how much did I spend on that etrog, on tefillin, where are all my mitzvot? If this was in this word, for example in a food shop and they wrote my name against my fellow’s purchases, we would be able to prove this error and they would see that I didn’t buy anything. Yet here of all places, in the true world, this is written about me? This is a mistake!

About them it states, “do not tell the messenger that it was in error,” don’t say it is an error, “Why should Hashem be angered by your speech and destroy the work of your hands?”, all your mitzvot were transferred to another person whom you spoke about. Therefore there is nothing written about tefillin, nothing written about the lulav, because everything passed to your fellow who [was one of those sterling people who] was insulted yet didn’t insult back [see Shabbat 88b] and you have lost everything!

What a tremendous loss there is in this!  How much a person toils all their life to perform mitzvot and good deeds, and everything goes down the drain and goes to their fellow!

So it is written in Mishlei, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21), if a person is vigilant with their tongue, happy are they and there is none better than them, “One who guards his mouth and tongue, guards his soul from trouble” (ibid. 21:23). But if they don’t do this, then they kill themselves, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”.

The Midrash brings a story about this. There was a Persian king who became ill. The doctors came and told him that he has no remedy unless he drinks a lioness’s milk. However the king didn’t know how to obtain this, since whoever will go and milk a lioness, she will rip them apart! The king’s shepherd, who was responsible for his sheep, came to him and said, “My master the king, I am prepared to volunteer and obtain for you the lioness’s milk!” The king said to him, “If you do this I will make your name great and will appoint you in a ministerial capacity.” The shepherd went with his sheep. He went to the area that the lioness lay with her lion and he sent in their direction one sheep. The lion and lioness ripped it apart and the shepherd went away. The next day he returned and sent them a goat and they ripped it and the shepherd went away. Likewise every day until the shepherd was able to get close to them and since they were familiar with him and used to him, they did nothing to him until he was able to touch them, and if they came to rip him apart he gave them a sheep. And so it went on and on until he was able to milk the lioness milk into a container. He took the container and ran away.

On his way he was very tired after having endangered himself, so he slept a bit. In his dream he saw all his limbs arguing amongst themselves. The hands said, there is none like us, without us he would have been unable to milk the lioness! The feet said, there is none like us, for without us he would have been unable to approach the lioness. The brain said there is nothing like me, for I gave him the unique idea how to draw near to the lioness. And so in this way, the limbs argued. Only the tongue remained silent.

The limbs said to her, why are you silent? She replied, you think you are important, soon we shall see…

The shepherd got up and came before the king and said to him. “My master the king”, and then the tongue caught him out and said, “I brought you the milk of a bitch”. “You scoundrel!” Screamed the king, “You brought me a bitch’s milk! I requested a lioness’s milk and you brought me a bitch’s milk, take him out and execute him!”

They took the shepherd and imprisoned him and they prepared the gallows to hang him. From his exhaustion, he slept again and in his dream he saw his tongue talking with the other limbs. She said to them, “You say that you are  the main one? Now you will see who the main one is!”

He arose from his sleep and said to those arresting him, “Why are you taking me out to be executed? Return me to the king and I will explain it all to him.” He again came before the king and he said to him, “My master the king, in truth this is a lioness’s milk! Send it to the laboratory and you will see it is a lioness’s milk!” The king replied, “Why then did you say ‘a bitch’s milk’?” He said to him, “The tongue failed me! But in earnest this is a lioness’s milk.” “And how did you obtain it?” the king enquired. The shepherd replied, “I did this and this until I succeeded to milk the lioness!”

They checked everything and he was being truthful. The king drank the milk and was healed. He elevated the shepherd and appointed him with a most prestigious portfolio in his cabinet.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue!”

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

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