Subscribe to a Weekly Series

Posted on April 26, 2004 (5764) By Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann | Series: | Level:

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 the hill.

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 beneath him.

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 me broken!”

“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 really badmouthing.

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 Guttman. Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and