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The Danger of Evil Speech

Topic: Well Being | Posted:April 10, 2013

The Shabbat of Tazria/Metzora is significant because two portions are read together, intertwining many of the lessons and Light that we receive this week.

I’d like to begin by sharing a kabbalistic insight from the Talmud about these portions:

There was a merchant going from city to city selling a “potion of life.” Rav Yannai, a great sage, heard about this merchant who said he had the miracle cure to life and asked to see what he was selling.

Rav Yannai welcomed the merchant into his home and said, “I hear you have traveled around the world saying that you have the potion for life. What is it?” The merchant opened up the Book of Psalms, written by King David, and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse that reads, “Who is the man who desires life and loves days that he may see good in them? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking negatively. Refrain from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:13-15) The merchant said, “This is what I’m selling.” Rav Yannai became very animated and said, “I have read this verse many times, but not until this very moment did I realize how simple its message is.”

So, what was revealed to Rav Yannai, and what can we learn from his new understanding?

The kabbalists explain that lashon hara - negative, evil speech - is the worst form of darkness there is. Evil speech is most commonly understood as speaking negatively about someone else, which is the most obvious, worst level of lashon hara. However, there are numerous ways to speak lashon hara; sometimes we talk about ourselves in negative ways, and sometimes we say things in anger.

If we were asked which is worse - walking up to someone and slapping them on the face, or having dinner with a friend and speaking badly about another person - most of us would say that the slapping is much worse. However, King David tells us that lashon hara is worse… worse than almost any other negative action we can do. But, why?

Rav Yannai explains that the person who slapped someone can go through a process of teshuvah, which allows for the removal of any darkness that we have brought upon ourselves. It is a two-step process; first is clearing the physicality of the action by asking the person who we hurt for forgiveness. Second is the spiritual aspect, which is about bringing enough Light into our soul so that the darkness drawn by the negative action is removed.

This process of teshuvah can be done for almost any negative action that we do, except for lashon hara, which is in a separate category of its own.

The seed for pain and suffering in our world was planted when the snake, the negative side, spoke lashon hara about the Creator to Eve and then to Adam in the Garden of Eden in the portion of Beresheet. Because Adam and Eve listened to the words of the snake, they fell spiritually. Therefore, when we speak negatively about others or about ourselves, we go back and reconnect to the power of the snake, the seed of darkness of our world. This puts a shell of negativity around our soul that prevents any Light we draw through our spiritual work from entering it.

And so returning then to the story from the Talmud, what the merchant revealed to Rabbi Yannai, and now to us, is that the prerequisite for any other spiritual work we do—whether it is restricting from negative actions or doing positive actions —is to first and foremost refrain from negative, evil speech. Because if we engage in lashon hara, we put a shell around our soul, and then all the Light we draw as a result of our spiritual work cannot even enter; it cannot assist and support us in our correction.

Therefore, we receive the gift on Shabbat Tazria/Metzora of renewed appreciation for the power of our words. As we connect to these portions, we can ask to truly get clarity on the tremendous spiritual fall that will result if we allow ourselves to engage in negative speech. We should no longer logically think that there is anything worse we could do than speak lashon hara.

The Zohar says that the word metzora, or tza’arat, is often translated as “leprosy,” and when translated into Aramaic is called segiru, which means “closed off.” This indicates to us that the portions of Tazria/Metzora are not about the physical ailment, but rather concern for a spiritual ailment which we all suffer from in one degree or another - being closed off from the Light.

The Zohar explains that the Torah uses the word nega - Nun, Gimel, Ayin - to connote darkness, leprosy, or segiru, being closed off from the Light of the Creator. It is therefore no coincidence that these three letters—Nun, Gimel, Ayin - form another word, oneg - Ayin, Nun, Gimel - which means “pleasure.” These two words: nega - disconnection from the Light of the Creator, and oneg - pleasure, are very much intertwined. We all have a certain amount of Light that is meant to come to us, and through our actions, we either put a shell of positive Light or of negative Light around our soul.

When we speak lashon hara, we take from our bank of Light and encase it in a shell of nega, disconnection from the Light of the Creator. It is still Light but now it is covered by a shell of darkness, and this causes us pain because we could have used this Light in the opposite way - assisting another person, for example. We could have taken this same Light and put a shell of Light around us which would sustain us with pleasure.

Oneg and nega, pleasure and pain, are not two separate realities, but a result of our actions. The Light we draw comes from the same bank, irrespective of whether it will be used for negative speech or an act of sharing. Everything needs to be sustained by our Light, and when we draw from our bank of Light and cover this Light in darkness, this darkness will now sustain itself in our life and manifest in different ways. The opposite is also true - when we do actions of sharing or act and talk positively, the exact same Light from that bank will sustain pleasure and positivity in our life.

The Zohar explains that physical and emotional pain comes from one source - nega, which is Light that we, through our words or actions, have covered in a shell of darkness. And so hopefully now we understand that the tremendous darkness we draw from lashon hara comes from the same Light that either sustains negativity or sustains positive pleasure in our life. The type of Light that will sustain us is up to us. We can take a potential oneg, a potential positive pleasure, and cover it instead through our negative words or negative actions by a shell of darkness.

On Shabbat Tazria/Metzora, we have the great gift of being able to take all of these shells of darkness around our Light, open them up, and not only remove the darkness, but also bring out even more Light from within them.

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