Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Parshas Tazria contains many of the laws of tzaraas, a spiritual illness
whose identifying characteristic was a white patch appearing on a
person's skin. Not every white patch necessarily indicates tzaraas; there
are several secondary symptoms that determine whether the person
should be declared tamei (impure). One of the secondary signs of tzaraas
is if the white patch subsequently caused at least two hairs in its area to
turn white. Another secondary sign of tu'mah (impurity) is if a patch of
healthy skin appears within the afflicted white area.
What is the symbolism of the two white hairs? I should point out that
not only does a person's natural white hair not qualify as a secondary
sign of impurity; the requirement is specifically that the hairs turn white
as a result of the skin having turned white. If the hairs turned white
and then the skin, the person is pure. Why must the discoloured hairs
be subsequent to the white skin?
According to Chazal, our Sages, tzaraas afflicts one who is not careful
with his tongue. Lashon hara means to speak maliciously about another
Jew - even when it's true. Closely tied-in to the mitzvah of shemiras ha-
lashon (being careful with one's tongue) is another concept: Havei dan es
kol ha-adam le-kaf zechus - Judging one's fellow man favourably. Easier
said than done, this means that we are obligated to give others the
benefit of the doubt, even when things appear overwhelmingly obvious
that they have done wrong.
There has been a surge of literature recently whose thrust has been,
through the medium of storytelling, to demonstrate how one never
knows when things are not as they first appear. Reading such stories,
one is truly amazed at the strange and unlikely scenarios in which Reuven
seems so obviously at fault, and yet isn't - although Shimon would have
had absolutely no way of knowing so.
There is another, less fascinating facet of judging others favourably; one
that doesn't require us to perform any sort of mental gymnastics in order
to conjecture what might have happened. It's really quite simple: People
make mistakes. Most likely, you have too. It doesn't mean they're bad
people; but it's quite possible they may have made an error in
judgement, discretion, etc.
Take the following example: You arrange to meet a friend at a certain
location at 3:00. Being a punctual person, you arrive at 2:55, and take a
few minutes to take in the scenery. Three o'clock comes and goes; 3:15
and then 3:30. By the time 3:45 rolls around, to say you're nervous
would be an understatement. It's everything you can do to control your
anger. Reminding yourself of the dictum, you begin to conceptualize
possible scenarios which could somehow explain your peer's blatant
inconsideration. A flat tire? A sudden case of amnesia? A red light that
refused to turn green? The longer you wait, the more far-fetched your
"favourable judgement" becomes.
Have you ever forgotten something? Even something very important to
you - which you really didn't want to forget - and you did? Would you
have said at the time that your forgetting was a reflection of your
callousness and inconsideration, or would you have tried to explain (to
the victim of your error) that you really feel terrible; that you wanted so
badly to remember; that they're really important to you; that you made
a mistake... Judging favourably can sometimes mean putting yourself in
the same situation, realizing that mistakes and errors sometimes happen,
and refusing to be judgemental and hateful.
It is noteworthy that the Mishna encourages to judge our fellow
favourably - not necessarily to create the most far-fetched scenario that
renders him completely un-responsible for his actions - but rather to
judge him, in our thoughts (and speech), with favour. Refusing to be
judgemental, and understanding that despite having likely made an error,
he is still a good person, certainly satisfies our obligation to give others
the benefit of the doubt; and it does so in a way that sits better with our
feelings and imaginations.
Why is it so important not to be judgemental of others? The Zohar
explains that when a person perpetrates a wrongdoing, the Heavenly
Court would likely be able to absolve him from punishment; in every sin,
so to speak, there is a "silver lining." A Jew, even when he sins, does so
with a heavy heart. Furthermore, there are almost always some sort of
extenuating circumstances that can tip the heavenly scales in his favour.
When, however, a peer judges his fellow disfavourably, unbeknownst to
him, his judgement ascends and bears witness in the Heavenly Court,
and the angelic jury has no choice but to administer some sort of
punishment as a result of the harsh testimony of a friend.
By speaking lashon hara, we render judgement over the subject of our
derision. The matter has been decided: there is no favourable light in
which to frame his actions. Unfortunately - for him as well as for us -
harsh judgements and punishments are liable to come upon him and his
community as a result of our negative speech. Perhaps if we would have
tried to refrain from being judgemental - to allow for the fact that people
make mistakes without necessitating that they be "raked over the coals" -
then we would have avoided speaking altogether, wanting no part in the
harsh judgement of a friend or peer.
How does all this relate to tzaraas - an affliction that befalls
those who speak negatively and judge disfavourably? At first, the ba'al
lashon hara finds his skin has turned white. Yet this alone does not
render him tamei. It is only if the skin has discoloured the hairs within
its domain that he is declared a metzora. Similarly, lashon hara begins
with a questionable action - so and so has done such and such. There is
the potential for harsh criticism and defamation. On the other hand, one
might consider the circumstances, the fact that we all have faults, other
factors of which one might not be aware, and choose not to malign the
perpetrator of the deed. Lashon hara occurs only when one takes the
questionable action and chooses to paint it with disfavourable colours -
his speech and judgement discolour the deed. Perhaps, too, this is why
a minimum of two hairs must become discoloured: symbolic of the
speaker and his audience, who together form a viable set of witnesses
(Jewish law requires a minimum of two witnesses).
We are presently traversing a time during which Jewish prayers are
focused on beseeching the Almighty to bring peace to His people. Yet
we must take the first step. By refusing to speak disparagingly about
others, and by refraining from being judgemental about things we often
don't really understand, we bring peace and blessing to our community
and our nation.
Have a good Shabbos.
Dedicated in loving memory of Levi Yitzchak ben Avraham
Leib. Ye'hei zichro baruch.
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.