Parshios Tazria & Metzorah
Lashon Hara - Cooking Our Own Kettle
Much of this week's parshios (Tazria/Metzora) deal with laws pertaining
to the metzora, who has contracted one of various forms of spiritual
illness (tzara'as), which manifests itself in a skin blemish (sometimes
mistakenly identified as leprosy). It is well known that according to
Chazal, our Sages, the word metzora is a contraction of motzi ra - one
who brings out the bad in others (Arachin 15b); namely, one who
spreads rumours and gossips about his fellow man - the ba'al lashon
hara/bearer of the evil tongue. What is less known is that tzara'as is also
a punishment for selfishness (tzaros ayin - literally a narrow eye, ibid
16a; see also other reasons).
Perhaps the idea is this: What motivates one to speak lashon hara? The
fact that he has "found" a fault in someone? This should come as no
surprise - everyone has them. So what really drives us to degrade and
malign our fellow man?
There are two ways to get to the top of the hill: Climb up it until you
reach the top, or level it by digging a hole so deep that all the dirt
falls into it, so that from where you stand you become the de-facto king of
We speak lashon hara out of some need to demonstrate our own
superiority, moral or otherwise. At times, this need is a manifestation of
our arrogance; we find themselves so far removed from our
contemporaries that we are appalled by their behaviour. This lashon hara
is spoken out of self-righteousness, and is easily recognizable; it comes
across as a snobbish, holier-than-thou, pretentious superiority.
Even when one is free of such feelings as an individual, and refrains from
defaming others, we can be easily drawn into this category of lashon hara
when speaking about groups and sects who hold views different than our
own. It is natural to put one's own beliefs on a pedestal - our beliefs,
especially religious, are dear to us - and we should be proud of them. It
becomes lashon hara when one seeks to enhance his own viewpoint by
deriding the views of others who differ in their outlook (even within a
Torah framework). Because we speak not as individuals but as members
of a group or community, it is more difficult to recognize the arrogance
and presumptuousness of our words.
This persone is the one who gets to the top of the hill by trodding his
way up, making sure he stands high at the top of all the dirt that lays
There is however, another more subtle type of lashon hara. Its bearer
doesn't come across as arrogant at all. To the contrary, he is humble and
self-critical, perhaps to the point of self-deprecation. It is precisely
this self-honesty which gives him - so he thinks - the right to be openly
critical of others. "I am indeed garbage, and do not presume to deny it,"
he says. This being the case, he considers himself uniquely qualified to
identify the faults of so-and-so, who doesn't even have the character to
admit them himself!
This type of lashon hara comes across as piercing cynicism; he presents
himself as the champion of painful honesty, a bearer of the truest truths
others are too coward to admit or recognise. He digs mankind into a
hole so deep that despite his own self-admitted mediocrity, he still
comes out on top, if for no other reason than, "at least he has the
honesty to admit it..."
His criticisms too bear the seal of self-righteousness, one borne not out
of king-of-the-hill arrogance but out of champion-of-the-garbage-pit
humility. As someone once quipped: "Honesty is the cruelest game of all;
not only can you hurt someone - and hurt them to the bone - you can
feel self-righteous about it at the same time."
In fact, it is his complete lack of self-worth and dignity that leads him
to degrade others. The truly humble are dignified and self-respecting, and
feel no need to advertise the "truths" of others or themselves.
The metzora is commanded as part of his purification process to take a
cedar branch and a hyssop (a bush) and use them to sprinkle himself
with water and the blood of his offerings. Rashi explains that the cedar,
king of the trees, represents arrogance, while the hyssop symbolizes
humility. By taking the two together, the metzora expresses his resolve
to change himself by converting his haughtiness into humility.
The Chiddushei Ha-Rim asks that it seems strange that one branch
represents a trait that needs to be fixed, while the other branch
represents its rectification.
Perhaps, according to the above, both the cedar branch and the hyssop
are there to be purified. Sometimes we put others down out of a sense
of superiority, and sometimes we do so out of tzaros ayin - an unhappy
sense of our own faults and shortcomings, that causes us to begrudge
others as a form of self-redemption. We must take both our sense of
superiority and of inferiority and dip them into the purification waters,
ensuring that neither of the two will continue to be a source for
tarnishing the deeds and beliefs of others.
This explains why the metzora is told to shave the hair of his head, his
eyebrows, and his beard. The beard surrounds the mouth, and
represents defamatory speech. The head symbolizes arrogance and
headiness. The eyebrows represent tzaros ayin - a lack of self-worth and
begrudging (see K'li Yakar).
There is, of course, nothing more foolish that to think that we can
elevate ourselves (or at least remain the last one standing) by gossiping
about and degrading others. The ba'al lashon hara imagines he bears
witness to the hidden "truths" of his fellow. In fact, more than anything
else, he bears witness to his own arrogance and self-importance, or to
his own lack of self-worth.
It brings to mind the story of the broken kettle, which it is said Freud
was wont to invoke:
"The kettle I lent you," says one man to the other, "you returned it to
"First of all, I never borrowed the kettle. Secondly, I returned it to
you unbroken. And finally, it was already broken when you lent it to me!"
The person, of course, confirms precisely what he endeavours to deny.
The ba'al lashon hara speaks about no one more than about himself; the
proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Chazal express this when they say
(Kiddushin 70a), "Whoever goes around advertising the faults of others;
he bears the same fault!" So before we are tempted to cast aspersions
on someone else, it might be a good idea to consider whom we are
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by the
Guttman family: wife Sura Toybe and sons Avraham
Moshe, Yosef Chaim, and Shmuel, in memory of their
husband/father, R' Menachem Mendel ben Shmuel
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org