Evil Speech & Leprosy

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Torah teaches of the punishment of leprosy, or Tzaraas, which visits a person on account of his or her speaking Lashon Hara, derogatory remarks concerning another. Leprosy visits the person in stages. At first, leprosy attaches itself to the person’s home. If the person heeds the warning and repents, it is gone. If not, it excels towards the person’s garments. Again, if one repents, it is gone. If God’s warning is still ignored, it finally attaches to the person’s body.

What is the purpose of this progression, and why these three, specific objects? Additionally, Torah states that for one to be atoned, one must bring two birds: one is slaughtered, and its blood is caught in a bowl. The live bird is dipped therein along with a branch of hyssop, myrtle and a red thread, and the live bloodstained bird is now set free over an open field.

On the surface, this seems barbaric, or at the least, unintelligible. However, as we know God is the Designer of the Torah, and “all its ways are pleasant” (Prov. 3:17), there must be a rational explanation for these practices, and for the objects used in attempting to correct the vicious person.

In order to understand how “mida k’neged mida” (measure for measure) works in this case, we must first understand the crime. Speaking derogatorily has at its source the desire for self-affirmation of one’s greatness. An insecure person will usually be found degrading others. In his mind, he now feels higher in comparison to the ridiculed party. However, a secure individual does not seek social approval, as this doesn’t affect his self-estimation. He is more concerned with God’s approval. Being secure, another person’s level has no effect on his status. What then is the remedy for this egomaniacal type of personality? It is to diminish his imagined grandeur. Part of the need to elevate oneself is the desire to be loved by others. When this cannot be, as a leper is banished outside the camp of the Israelites, he must now confront his insignificance.

However, God the merciful seeks to avoid the worst by hinting to the person that he has done wrong. God does not send leprosy to the body first. He initially uses other vehicles with which the person identifies, viz., his home, and his clothing. God commences with the home, as this is furthest removed from the person, but related enough to him so as to awaken him: there is something distasteful in him that he should delve into. If the person is obstinate, God sends the leprosy to a closer object, his garments. This is more closely tied to one’s identity, and is more effective. But if not heeded to, God finally delivers leprosy to his body, which is undeniably him. We see from here God’s mercy and intelligence in using objects with which we identify.

Parenthetically, these three objects—house, clothes and body—correlate exactly to Mezuza, Tzitzis, and Tefillin. These are also tied to the idea of identification, but from a different angle: since God desires that one place their trust in Him, and not in their own strength, God created these three commands to redirect where one places their trust. Mezuza reminds one not to invest too much reliance in his home, as God should be recognized as the true, only Protector. The home is correctly viewed as a haven from the elements. But God desires that we act in line with reality, which means, above natural law: we must trust in His shelter over structural shelters. So we place a reminder on the doorway—the best place to be reminded of God, as a doorway receives all of the traffic of a home. We are urged not to place too much importance on our dress, and therefore are commanded to wear Tzitzis, fringes. Clothing again is an area where people express their identity. But when we gaze at the Tzitzis, we are reminded about investing too much importance in our dress. Lastly, but most closely tied to our self-images, are our bodies. One is most affected when something happens to his body, even if no pain is suffered. We are also more tied to our appearances than to our clothes and homes. We define the body incorrectly as the “real me.” This is due to our false definition of what “man” is. Society tells us that man equals his body. The Torah tells us that man equals intellect, perfected values, and ideals. Hence, we are commanded to wear Tefillin: a bodily reminder that we should not invest too much worth here either.

These three—home, clothes, and body—are the three main areas where one identifies, and thus, the three areas where God saw it fit to place reminders that God alone should be the one upon whom we depend. And as these three are where we identify, God uses them again when attempting to focus us on our errors: He sends leprosy to those objects that we deem are “ours”, or “ourselves”.

Returning to the Parsha, what is the idea behind the two birds? Besides correcting the person’s flaw of overestimation, he must also realize the irrevocable harm inflicted on another human being. Rashi states that birds in specific are brought, as they chirp, to make clear that the crime had to do with his “chirping” like a bird. The live bird (resembling the sinner) is dipped in the blood of the other, dead bird (resembling the one humiliated by the speech) and let free over a field. This is to demonstrate that just as this bloodied bird is irretrievable, so too his evil “bloody” speech irretrievable. As you cannot catch the same bird twice, so also he cannot retract his words which were let loose on the world. The damage is done, the “bird is loose.” This will hopefully give recognition to the person who spoke destructively and make clear his crime.

The birds acting as atonement teaches that knowing one’s sin is the first step towards forgiveness.