"The pen is mightier than the sword." This cliché exists for a reason: words have power. This is why Judaism realizes the importance of words, hence the emphasis on speech ethics. This emphasis also play a role in this week's Torah portion. Much of this week's portion discusses צרעת, which is commonly translated as "leprosy." Jewish tradition teaches that this leprosy is brought about by לשון הרע (lashon hara; literally meaning "evil tongue," refers to gossip and other forms of bad speech ethics). This lesion makes an appearance in a later Torah portion when Miriam speaks against her brother (Numbers 12), as well as when Moses spoke lashon hara about himself (Exodus 4:6). In the former appearance, Moses singles it out as the single most important lesson for the next generation to learn (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).
In spite of what Moses heeded, Jewish religious establishments, particularly Orthodox ones, put more emphasis on keeping kosher and Shabbat. Why? For one, it's easier to keep kosher and Shabbat, especially when you're in a community that observes it. Second, it's easier to regulate kashrut and Shabbat than it is what comes out of one's mouth. Even so, I wish that observant Jews were as meticulous about avoiding lashon hara as they were about keeping kosher or Shabbat. And it's not limited to Orthodoxy. I don't see non-Orthodox movements actively campaigning against lashon hara as a form of tikkun olam. Why am I so gung-ho about the idea of cracking down on lashon hara?
Looking at the description of צרעת in this week's Torah portion can help give us a foundation for my ardor. I found three facets of the description of צרעת of particular interest.
The first is that one's clothes are torn (בגדיו יהיו פרמים; Leviticus 13:45). I found this to be interesting because the tearing of one's clothing (קריעה) is done as a sign of mourning of a loved one. When we speak lashon hara, what should we be mourning? Judaism considers lashon hara to be akin to murder because just as blood is drained in murder, so is the blood drained from one's face when embarrassed in public (Bava Metzia 59a). Gossip is actually a triple murder threat because it harms the person who speaks it, the person about whom it is spoken, and the person who hears it. The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) likens lashon hara to an arrow because it can slay those from afar, as well those who are near.
The second facet is that the leper has to call out "impure" (טמא!) to those around him (Leviticus 13:45). One thought is that the outcry is a plea to elicit compassion and prayers on one's behalf (Talmud, Mo'ed Katan 5a). In a similar vein, this outcry can be a projection of one's failures (Talmud, Kiddushin 70a). In order to get help, the first step is to admit it. The fact that a commandment to do so is implied makes us realize just how difficult it can be to admit our problems. When we verbalize them, it brings us closer to recovery.
The third sign is that when one has the lesion, one has to isolate themselves from the rest of the community (Leviticus 13:46). This is to remind us that when we speak badly, our words disconnect ourselves from others. Speaking badly about other erodes trust in others, which causes distance from those who habitually speak lashon hara. Why is lashon hara so distancing, I mean, aside from the fact it causes harm? When an individual steals or murders, the motive is to typically gain something for oneself. With someone who speaks lashon hara, it's worse in this case because the motive is entirely negative. The individual is knocking down another individual without gaining tangible benefit for oneself because there generally is no motive or reason. It is evil for its own sake (R. Joseph Telushkin, You Shall Be Holy, p. 341-342).
It is not just the Torah that teaches how we blemish ourselves with improper speech, but the entirety of Jewish tradition. Here's but one example:
The destruction of the First Temple was caused by the sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, which are the three sins for which one is to martyr themselves (Sanhedrin 74a). That exile only took place for about seventy years before the Second Temple was constructed. The Second Temple was destroyed because of lashon hara (Yoma 9b, Rashi's commentary), and we still don't have a Third Temple. What does that tell you? The sin of lashon hara has so much gravitas that it outweighs murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality (Erchin 15b).
The Chofetz Chayim points out that by speaking lashon hara, one violates up to 31 mitzvahs. He went far as saying that a significant curtailing of lashon hara would herald Moshiach. If Jews were half as gung-ho about stopping lashon hara as they were in the observance of Shabbat or keeping kosher, we very well could bring about the Messianic Era.