The conclusion of a survey of Rabbis’ speeches this Shabbat morning would likely be nine out of ten Rabbis prefer lashon hara to leprosy. This despite the fact that lashon hara, the prohibition on gossip, is probably the hardest mitzvah we have. Defined as the passing on of information about someone else that is harmful to him or her or sets him or her in a negative light, this is a mitzvah that challenges us to engage in a daily struggle to guard our tongues and pens (and nowadays our fingers that text, post, message and email).
Leprosy, on the other hand, is not so bad. Leprosy in the Torah is only a discoloration of the skin and body hair, not the disease we commonly call leprosy. Leprosy in the Torah is often cured after a number of weeks and can just as easily afflict clothing and houses as skin. It is a spiritual ailment, whose physical symptoms are purely superficial. As Maimonides writes, leprosy in the Torah is not a natural occurrence, but a sign and a wonder for the Jewish people to warn them about lashon hara (Leprosy 16:8). The reason we do not experience this leprosy today is that we no longer have revealed miracles.
Unfortunately, for Rabbis, our parasha only mentions leprosy, not lashon hara. Fortunately, for Rabbis, our Sages have a strong tradition that leprosy is the punishment for lashon hara. Perhaps the Sages rely on an ancient tradition from Moses, perhaps on numerous hints in the text of the Torah. One famous proof that Maimonides himself offers is the story of Miriam. Miriamis afflicted with leprosy after speaking lashon hara about her younger brother Moses. Miriamdiscovers that Moses has separated from his wife because of his high level of prophecy. Miriamwonders out loud to her brother Aaron how they can both be prophets and married while baby brother Moses needs to be celibate. Miriam’s ensuing leprosy is one of the six events that the Torah commands us to remember.
Rav Y. D. Soloveitchik finds it surprising that lashon hara and its leprous outcome would be one of the six central remembrances of the Torah. He prefers to explain that we are commanded to remember Miriam’s story because it teaches us a central principle of faith. Miriamdenies the unique nature of Moses’ prophecy. Moses’ prophecy is qualitatively superior; he speaks “face to face” with G-d. On this principle, we build our belief in the Torah as the ultimate embodiment of G-d’s will.
I would apply Rav Soloveitchik’s insight to common lashon hara as well. Our tradition views lashon hara as morally bankrupt regardless of whether the parties involved are Jewish. The Torah’s language about lashon hara focuses, however, on the case of a Jew talking about another Jew. Its leprous outcome is also, as Maimonides explains, an affliction reserved for Jews only. There is something unique about us Jews. We are, in the words of our Sages, areivin zeh bazeh, spiritually interconnected. Our Sages go as far as to say that a Jew who takes revenge on another Jew is like a man whose left hand takes revenge on his right hand. Any Jew who speaks lashon hara about another Jew has an extra point against him. He is denying the principle of the spiritual unity of the Jewish people. He is acting as if it is fine for him to damage or degrade another Jew, when from our Sages’ perspective he is literally shooting himself in the foot. Just as Miriamdenied Moses’ uniqueness in her lashon hara, so lashon hara between Jews denies the unique character of the Jewish people.