And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: This shall be the Torah (law) of the Metzora on the day of his purification – he shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:1-2)
Rabbeinu Bachaya, in his classic work Chovos HaLevavos (Sha’ar HeK’neiah Ch. 7) tells the story of a certain sage who, upon hearing that someone had been badmouthing him, sent him a lavish present. On the card, he wrote: “In appreciation of your beautiful gift: Thank you for relinquishing to me all of your mitzvos and ma’asim tovim (good deeds)!”
The ba’al lashon ha-ra (one who gossips and slanders another), he explains, is actually performing a great kindness to the person about whom he chooses to gossip. Behind the scenes, a monumental exchange is taking place: All of the ba’al lashon ha-ra’s mitzvos and merits are transferred to the “account” of the one whom he slandered, while at the same time he graciously accepts all of his aveiros (sins) and demerit points. Quite a price to pay for an innocent little anecdote…
Noam Megadim poses the following question: Which mitzvos does the slandered person receive; the mitzvos from this point on, or his previous mitzvos? It can only mean, he reasons, his past merits. The mitzvos which the speaker of lashon ha-ra will perform from now-on are of no interest to the slandered; they become instantly tainted and blemished by his now sullied tongue! Rather, the pure, unblemished Torah study and mitzvos of his youth – the mitzvos he worked so hard to amass before he began his maligning ways – are all taken from him to be given to the person about whom he chose to gossip.
If we closely examine the beginning of this week’s sidrah, he says, we can find a hint to this concept. Metzora is explained by our Sages (Erachin 15b) to be a compound word; motzi ra – one who brings out the bad. This refers to the ba’al lashon ha-ra, who looks to bring out and publicize the bad he perceives in others. This shall be the Torah of the metzora – What shall we do with the Torah and mitzvos of one who speaks lashon ha-ra about another? He (it) shall be brought to the Kohen – Let all his merits be transferred to his victim – the Kohen – the good fellow who follows in the ways of Aaron, the original Kohen, who hears his name being slandered, yet does not respond nor take revenge. To which Torah do we refer: pre- or post-lashon ha-ra? We refer only to the Torah that was learned, On the day of his purification – the untainted, pure Torah study of his youth, which was amassed when he had not yet defiled his mouth with the grime of other peoples’ faults and shortcomings.
But it’s not over: And the Kohen – i.e. the slandered, shall look, and behold! – his tzaraas affliction has been healed from (by) the metzora – not only does he find himself with countless Torah and mitzvos suddenly and anonymously deposited into his account; all of his aveiros are gone! They’ve been healed by the metzora – the motzi ra.
“The best doctor,” goes a famous saying of Chazal, our Sages (Kiddushin 82a), “inherits gehinnom.”
Who, asks the Noam Megadim, is the best doctor? Why the ba’al lashon ha-ra, of course. He “heals” the subject of his gossip in a way that not even the greatest medical practitioner could ever dream of. He imbues him with a fresh, ‘healthy’ supply of Torah and mitzvos, while skillfully removing all his ‘infectious’ aveiros without a trace!
I was always bothered by the following question: Why should the sin of lashon ha-ra carry such an unprecedented penalty? How is it possible that all that a person has worked so hard to accomplish all his life can be suddenly whisked away from him in a thoughtless moment of gossip and idle chatter? Where is the attribute of Heavenly justice and middah ke-neged middah (quid pro quo – punishment suited to the crime) to be found?
Perhaps we can understand this by considering the following: When we hear children badmouthing their rebbe or teacher, how much weight does it carry? How likely are we to accept what they’re saying at face value? If, however, one were to hear from someone for whom one has great respect that so-and-so did such-and-such, etc., how much more likely would we be to accept his/her account and assessment?
Lashon ha-ra carries the weight of its bearer. The told-tale comes backed with its rencounter’s reputation – stamped with his seal of approval. The more reputable the ba’al lashon ha-ra, the more weighty his tale becomes. If he is one who has amassed a great deal of Torah and mitzvos, his lashon ha-ra carries the force of all he has ever done. Perhaps this is why we give them all away to his victim – after all, he has bared the brunt of their burden.
That which the ba’al lashon ha-ra accepts the liability for the sins of his victim can be understood as follows: When a Jew sins, he is instantly filled with regret. Were it, he wishes, that he could take that moment back! He would surely do differently. Fervently he asks Hashem for forgiveness – that all his sins be forgotten. “Throw all my sins,” he begs, “into the depths of the ocean!” We believe that Hashem does indeed forgive the sins of the pertinent. All is forgiven and forgotten.
Then along comes our ba’al lashon ha-ra, and decides that all is not well. He digs up some old dirty rags, and airs them out in public for all to see. All other concerned parties were more than willing to allow the dirt to remain buried, never again to surface. All had been forgotten. Well – says Hashem – if you really want them, you can have them. They’re yours now!
These are my thoughts to try and understand the unprecedented and unequalled results of lashon ha-ra. At any rate, when all is said and done, we are still left with the powerful, bone-chilling words of the Chovos Ha-Levavos: We can squander it all – everything we have worked so hard to accomplish – in foolish moments of idle talk and chatter. As Pesach – a Yom Tov so closely associated with mitzvos one performs with one’s mouth (matzah, maror, four cups of wine, telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt) – approaches, it is surely an appropriate time to renew our commitment to shemiras ha- lashon, guarding our tongues from gossip.