“Death and Life are in the ‘Hands’ of the Tongue!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Tazria, deals mostly with the issue of Lashon Hara, speaking evil of others.

The Torah cites two instances in which a person is stricken with the disease tzaraat for speaking evil of others. In Exodus 4:1, Moshe protests to G-d, arguing that he not be appointed leader of Israel, by saying: V’heim lo ya’aminu li, v’lo yish’m’uh b’koli, The people of Israel will not believe me, they will not heed my voice! As one of the miraculous signs meant to reinforce Moshe’s stature with the people, G-d instructs Moshe to place his hand in his bosom. When he pulls it out, Moshe’s hand is stricken with tzaraat, seemingly a punishment for speaking against the people of Israel. Similarly, in Numbers 12, verses 1-16, Miriam speaks against Moshe, is stricken with tzaraat, and is confined for seven days before she is healed and the people can move on.

King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs 18:21 writes: Mavet v’chaim b’yad lashon – Death and life are in the “hands” of the tongue.

When I was a child, my father, of blessed memory, would tell a tale of a King who was stricken with a rare illness. The doctors told him that the only way he could be cured would be to drink the milk of a lioness. The King called his bravest hunter and instructed him to fetch the milk. Without hesitation or trepidation, the daring hunter entered the wilderness, captured a lioness, collected the milk in a container, and laid down to rest before delivering the vital medicine to the King. As he lay resting, the various parts of the hunter’s body began to glory in their accomplishment. The legs said, “We legs deserve all the credit, for were it not for us, the hunter would never have reached the lioness.” The hands responded scornfully to the legs, pointing out that were it not for the hands the hunter would have never been able to milk the lioness. The eyes piped in saying that the hunter would have never been able to see the lioness were it not for the eyes. The ears then began to contend that they were the most important because the hunter would never have heard the order in the first place. When the tongue attempted to make a case for its importance, all the other organs of the body began to mock the tongue dismissively. The tongue fell silent.

The arrival of the hunter and the medicine at the King’s palace was announced with great fanfare. “Your Highness,” the hunter said, “I am honored to deliver the PIG’s milk as you have requested.” The King burst out in anger and said, “PIG’s milk?! I asked for lioness’ milk! Take this man out and behead him!” All the organs of the body began to tremble, and shouted at the tongue: “How could you have said PIG’s milk? You know it’s lioness’ milk! We are all going to die now,” they exclaimed. “Do you acknowledge that I am the most important organ of the body?” the tongue demanded. “Yes, yes,” they shouted. The tongue immediately corrected himself. “Of course I meant to say lioness’ milk. Just test it and you will see!” And the hunter, of course, was saved.

We tend to dismiss the power of the tongue–its power to give life and to take life. Perhaps, if we pay attention to the roots and causes which at times mislead us to speak evil, we would be more sensitive to this hurtful moral shortcoming.

The Torah, in Parashat Tazria, describes in detail the symptoms of the disease tzaraat. Tzaraat appears as a white patch on the skin, in various basic shades and secondary colors. The Torah calls these different shades s’eit and sapachat. A bit later, the Torah speaks of baheret, a whitening. The Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839, the famed rabbi of Pressburg, Hungary, interprets these colors metaphorically. S’eit, he said, which literally means “a rising,” is an allusion to the fact that in speaking evil of another person one tends to build oneself up at the expense of the other. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief Rabbi of Efrat, when he was the rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue, used to say that there are two ways for a person to show his greatness. One is to stand up big and tall, the other is to push the other person down. Sapachat, says the Chatam Sofer, comes from the root of the word “to add” and “to increase.” The person who speaks lashon hara against another often tries to bad mouth his competitors by saying that they are no good in business, as a means of increasing one’s own possessions. Finally, says the Chatam Sofer, baheret comes from the word “light” or “clarity,” implying that a person who speaks lashon hara wants to show off how smart he is, how much clarity he has, how much light he brings into the world, while everyone else is inferior.

The prophet Jeremiah, in Chapter 9, verse 22, offers one of the most profound and enlightening words of advice to humankind: “Thus saith the Lord, ” says the prophet in the name of G-d. “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches. Let him that glory, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.” Clearly, no one should glory in one’s intellectual endowment, in one’s physical strength or health, or in one’s wealth–because there is always someone more brilliant, stronger, and wealthier, and, after all, these endowments are all transitory. The only thing that a person may glory in is piety and rectitude, because this is what G-d ultimately desires. So please, watch your tongue.

May you be blessed.