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Life and Death is in the Hand of the Tongue

Rectifying the Sin of Lashon HaRa

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Metzora/Shabbat HaGadol

For a print version of this article click here
Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen
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The Tur writes[2] that on most leap years we read the Torah portion of Metzora before Pesach.[3] He offers the following two words to remember this order, “סגרו ופסחו” – close up (a reference to the metzora [one with tzara’at/leprosy] who is kept separate) and make Pesach.
The deeper meaning of this mnemonic is that, according to the Talmud, tzara’at is a punishment for speaking lashon hara[4] (negative speech about other people). So we tell a person who has committed this sin, “To do teshuvah you must close your mouth (סגרו) from negative speech and open it (פסחו) for positive speech.” (The word פסח is an acronym for פה שׂ /peh sach – let the mouth speak – about the exodus.)[5]
Why the Two Birds?
The Torah portion discusses how a metzora was purified from his impurity. This process involved taking two birds, slaughtering one and sending the other one away.[6]
The Talmud[7] wonders, why does the metzora need birds to be purified, something that we don’t find by the purification of any other ritually unclean person?[8]
The Talmud answers that since the metzora spoke lashon hara which involves chattering, he must atone for this by bringing birds who chatter constantly.
The Maharsha explains that the sin of lashon hara involves speech. King Solomon writes,[9] “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” This means that one can acquire life by using his tongue to study Torah (and do other speech-related mitzvot) or, G-d forbid, one can deserve death for speaking lashon hara (and similar other negative speech). Thus, the killing of the first bird symbolizes that one must cease talking lashon hara while the bird that remains alive (to chirp at will) symbolizes that one must study Torah, the antidote to lashon hara. (See Erkin 15b where the Talmud says, “How can one ensure that one not speak lashon hara? If he is a Torah scholar, he should study Torah.”)
The Iyun Yaakov adds that the sending of the live bird symbolizes that, in order to study Torah, (the antidote to speaking lashon hara) it is sometimes necessary to travel to a distant location.[10]
Isolation
The Talmud also asks why, of all the impure people, the metozra is the only one who is sent out of the (walled) city and made to remain alone?[11] It answers that since, through his speaking lashon hara, he separated between a man and his wife and between a man and his friends, he must remain alone as punishment.
Why the Birds and the Isolation
The sin of lashon hara is twofold. Firstly, the negative speech itself is a sin and a contamination of one’s power of speech. Secondly, if the negative speech caused harm to others, it is another sin. The metzora, therefore, needs two atonements. To atone for the effect his speech had on others (i.e., that it caused separation between people), he must remain in isolation until he is healed (which is taken as a sign that his repentance was accepted). At that time he must atone for the speech itself. This is accomplished by the ritual of the two birds.[12]
Can one do Teshuvah for Lashon Hara?
The Talmud[13] brings two opinions as to whether teshuvah (repentance) is effective for the sin of speaking lashon hara:
·        “Rabbi Chama, the son of Rabbi Chanina, says, ‘How does one repair the sin of lashon hara? If he is a Torah scholar, he should study Torah, as the verse says,[14] ‘The tree of life (i.e., the Torah) is a healing for the tongue.’ If he is not a Torah scholar, he should humble himself, as the verse says,[15] ‘If he is perverse with it [his tongue], he must break his spirit.’”
·        “Rabbi Acha, the son of Rabbi Chanina, says, ‘If he spoke lashon harathere is no rectification [for him], as King David, with his Divine inspiration, already declared him to be cut off [beyond hope], as the verse says,[16] ‘May the L-rd cut off all smooth lips, the tongue that speaks great things.’ Rather, what should one do so that he not come to speak lashon hara in the first place? If he is a Torah scholar, he should study Torah, and if not, he should humble himself.”
Why No Teshuvah?
The Kli Yakar explains[17] that the reason for the opinion one cannot do Teshuvah for slanderous speech is that it is impossible to fully correct its negative effects since the reputation of the person he spoke about may be damaged in faraway places that he cannot reach, or that he does not know about, and thus cannot correct.
The Power to Reconnect
The Shem MiShmuel asks,[18] It is known that Teshuvah helps for all sins, as the Rambam writes,[19] “Even if he denies God’s existence throughout his life and repents in his final moments, he merits a portion in the world to come.” So why does it not help for lashon hara? In addition, we see that it helps from the fact that the Torah discusses how a metzora can be purified after he is healed. Certainly, the healing is a sign that his teshuvah was accepted.
The idea is that, although by speaking lashon hara one is cut off from his spiritual source (as King David said), one can reconnect to G-d by studying Torah, which is the Divine source of life for the entire world.[20] Similarly, since G-d’s presence is found among the humble people,[21] by humbling oneself one can reconnect with G-d.
The reason Rabbi Acha says there is no way to rectify the sin of lashon hara is that he believes that since it is very difficult to refrain from speaking lashon hara,[22] the chances are that one who already transgressed will backslide even after doing teshuvah. Whereas Rabbi Chama says that the Torah (or one’s newfound humility) can prevent the person from backsliding.
Takes the Sins of the Other
Another explanation[23] for the two opinions regarding doing teshuvah for the sin of lashon hara is based on the following teaching of the Chovot HaLevavot:[24] When one speaks lashon hara, his mitzvot are transferred to the one he spoke about while the sins of the person he spoke about are transferred to him. Thus, on the great day of reckoning, some may find mitzvot in their account which they did not fulfill. They will say, “We have not done these deeds!” They will be told, “These are the merits of the ones who spoke negatively about you.” Similarly, some people will find sins in their account which they did not commit. They will wonder about this and be told, “These are the sins of the person you spoke against that were added to your ‘account.’” This is alluded to by King David who wrote in Tehillim (79:12), “And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom, their reproach with which they reproached You.” I.e., the nations of the world will be punished many times more than their sin because they spoke negatively about the Jewish people and G-d Himself.[25]
The Chovot HaLevavot recounts the following story: Someone once spoke lashon hara about a wise scholar. The next day the scholar sent him a present. When asked why he was giving him a present, the scholar explained, “He gave me a present of all of his mitzvot, so I gave him this present in return.”
Doing Teshuvah on Unknown Sins
This explains why (according to Rabbi Acha) one cannot do teshuvah for the sin of lashon hara. When one speaks lashon hara, one receives the sins of the one they spoke about. Since one doesn’t know what those sins are, he cannot do teshuvah for them as it is impossible to do teshuvah on unknown sins.
Getting to the Root of the Matter
Despite this, Rabbi Chama maintains that one can do teshuvah for speaking lashon hara. The reason for this is that when does a high-level teshuvah (out of love), his sin is uprooted, and it becomes a mitzvah.[26] One who previously spoke lashon hara and then corrects the root of that sin by studying Torah or becoming humble is obviously, doing a high level teshuvah. As such, his sin is completely forgiven and turned into a mitzvah. From that point on, the sins of the other person which one accumulated by speaking the lashon hara are no longer associated with him as he is no longer considered to have sinned.
May G-d grant us to use our tongues to acquire life!
Copyright 2019 by Rabbi Aryeh Citron
[2] O.C. 428
[3] The exception to this is a leap year on which Rosh Hashana falls on Thursday and it is a year in which the months of Chesvhan and Kislev have the same number of days (29 or 30). In these cases, parshat No’ach is read on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. This brings up the Torah reading schedule by one week and the Torah portion of Acharei Mot is read before Pesach (Mishnah Beruah 428:6)..
[4] See Erkin 15b where Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra says that whoever speaks lashon hara will be afflicted with tzara’at.
[5] Toldot Ya’akov Yosef (by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnaya, the senior student of the Baal Shem Tov), Parshat Tzav.
In Parshat Metzora the Toldot Yaakov Yosef writes that this mnemonic alludes to the fact that one may not cut off his leprosy spots to be pure for the purposes of bringing the Pesach sacrifice (although one may do so in the course of a circumcision). Thus, סגרו ופסחו alludes to the fact that a metzora must go through the standard purification process of solitude (סגרו) before he can bring the Pesach offering (ופסחו).
[6] Levit. 14:4 – 7
[7] Erkin 16b
[8] The zav and zavah (a man or woman who have certain bodily discharges) must bring sacrificial birds as part of their ritual purification. What is unique about the metzora is that the birds are not sacrificed. Instead, one is sacrificed and the other sent away (Maharsha).
The Mutzal Me’eish on Erkin (by the author of the Chamudei Daniel, Rabbi Daniel of Horodna, passed away in 1807) adds that these were small birds that were not eligible to be sacrifices on the altar.
[9] Mishlei, 18:21
[10] See Avot, 4:14
[11] See Levit. 13:46. See also Numbers 5:2 and Rashi that the zav and zavah must also leave certain areas. But the metzora is the only one who must leave the city entirely.
[12] Mutzal Me’esh on Erkin 16b D.H. Ma Nishtana
[13] Erkin 15b
[14] Mishlei 15:4
[15] Ibid (This is the homiletic rather than the literal translation of the verse.)
[16] Tehillim 12:4
[17] On Levit. 14:4
[18] Rabbi Shmuel Brenstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe, in Parshat Metzora 5670
[19] Laws of Teshuvah 3:14
[20] See the beginning of Bereishit Rabbah that G-d created the world based on the Torah
[21] See Sotah 5a
[22] See Bava Batra 165a
[23] Toldot Yakov Yosef, Parshat Tzav
[24] Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda (of 11th Century Spain), in Sha’ar HaKeni’a, chapter 7
[25] As explained by Lefi Pat Lechem on the Chovot HaLevavot
[26] Yoma 86b
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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