“Death and Life are in the ‘Hands’ of the Tongue!”
(Revised and updated from Tazria 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

The Torah cites two instances in which a person spoke ill of others and was stricken with the disease צָרַעַתTzaraat. In Exodus 4:1, Moses protests to G-d, arguing that he should not be appointed the leader of Israel, saying: וֽהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, The people of Israel will not believe me, they will not heed my voice! As one of the miraculous signs meant to reinforce Moses’ stature with the people, G-d instructs Moses to place his hand in his bosom. When he pulls it out, Moses’ hand is stricken with Tzaraat, seemingly a punishment for speaking against the people of Israel. Similarly, in Numbers 12:1-16, when Miriam speaks against Moses, she is stricken with Tzaraat, and is confined for seven days before she is healed and the people move on.

King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs 18:21 writes: מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן – Death and life are in the “hands” of the tongue.

When I was a child, my father, of blessed memory, would tell a well-known tale of a king who was stricken with a rare illness. The doctors told him that only drinking the milk of a lioness could cure him. The king enlisted the assistance of the bravest hunter in the land to fetch the milk. Without hesitation or trepidation, the daring hunter entered the wilderness, captured a lioness, collected the milk, and laid down to rest before delivering the lifesaving remedy to the king.

As he lay resting, the various parts of the hunter’s body began to glory in their accomplishment. The legs bragged, “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 were it not for the eyes the hunter would have never been able to see the lioness. The ears then began to contend that they were the most important part of the hunter’s body, because the hunter would never have heard the king’s request 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 return of the hunter from his vital mission with the requested medicine was announced with great fanfare at the king’s palace. “Your royal highness,” the hunter proudly announced, “I am honored to deliver the PIG’s milk as your majesty has 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 shout 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 now 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 reasons and causes which at times mislead us to speak evil, we would become more sensitive to this hurtful moral shortcoming.

The Torah, in parashat Tazria, describes in detail the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease. Tzaraat, at times, appears as a white patch on the skin, in various basic shades and secondary colors. The Torah identifies and names these different shades: שְׂאֵתs’eit and סַפַּחַתsapachat. A bit later, the Torah speaks of בַּהֶרֶתbaheret, a whitening.

The Chatam Sofer 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 former rabbi of 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.

The word 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 badmouth his competitors by saying that they are no good in business, as a means of enhancing their own business. 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.

In Jeremiah 9:22, the prophet offers profound and enlightened words of advice to humankind: “Thus says 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, not 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 is entitled to glory in one’s intellectual endowment, or 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 gifts from G-d and 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.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 5 and 6, 2019.