It emerges from many sources in our tradition that nega’im – the tzara’at afflictions described in Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora – serve as a punishment for the sin of lashon hara (improper speech about others). But how might we explain the connection between this particular sin and this particular punishment? Why is a person who speaks lashon hara punished specifically with these afflictions, which the Torah describes in our parasha?
The Maharal of Prague answers that a person who speaks lashon hara disrupts social harmony, he disturbs the tranquillity of people living in that society. He is therefore unworthy of living his life together with others. Therefore, anyone who speaks libellously of others deserves to suffer afflictions which deter others from coming near him. They force him to live in isolation, and he is thus appropriately punished with a lonely life of solitude.
This explanation clarifies the “mida ke’neged mida” – “measure for measure” – quality of this punishment. Lashon hara has the effect of breaking down society and distancing its members from one another. The subversive gossip, therefore, who seeks to destroy society, is banished and distanced from society. This approach indeed explains the result of tzara’at, namely, the victim’s isolation from his society, but does not explain the meaning behind the items that the sinner must bring to the kohen for his purification process. Wherein lies the connection between lashon hara, birds, cedar wood, hyssop, and a worm – the items the sinner must bring to the kohen?
If we look at some of the commentaries, we indeed find a strong connection between these items and the nature of the sin committed. What emerges is a critical, educational message to the sinner, as through simply bringing these items he becomes aware of the gravity of his misdeed.
The two birds: Rashi explains that birds constantly chirp, thus reminding the person of the importance of limiting unnecessary speech. The obligation to bring two birds to the kohen indicates that lashon hara is caused mainly when there are two parties – speaker and listener – both whom are ultimately affected (besides, of course, the subject of the conversation).
Cedar wood: In our sources, the cedar tree symbolizes power and strength. The cedar is a particularly large and powerful tree whose roots are firmly embedded in the ground. It thus symbolizes human arrogance, the conceit that results from the strength and power a person feels, thus leading him to speak gossip and lashon hara. A second view maintains that the cedar symbolizes the fact that the sinner’s process of teshuva must be firm and strong like this tree.
Hyssop: The hyssop is a low bush (which can be seen growing in between the stones of the kotel). It has a modest appearance, and stands out it neither its dimensions nor its color. The hyssop bush does not attract any attention. It symbolizes for us the character of the one who performs sincere teshuva, who, from this point on, must strive to conduct himself like this bush, not lifting his head any more than necessary. Otherwise, he will simply repeat his past mistakes. The worm similarly symbolizes humility.
We can now understand how the items brought to the kohen reflect the spiritual ills suffered by the sinner and the proper path of teshuva. For us (as opposed to the English), the process of sin is completed with teshuva, not with retribution.
The Midrash Rabba on our parasha brings a story of a certain merchant who would travel through cities and announce, “Who is interested in purchasing life-giving potion?” Rabbi Yannai told the man that he is interested, but the merchant told him that he has no need for this potion. He proved this by showing him a pasuk in Tehillim: “Who is the man who desires life… Guard your tongue against evil… turn away from evil and perform goodness.”
Rabbi Yannai responded, “My whole life I would read this pasuk without realizing how simple it is, until this merchant came along and informed me, ‘Who is the man who desires life’!”
Most people go through life amidst pressure and tension, competition and struggle. They always joke about how they wish they could skip time, they look forward to the time when their pressures will end and the days of rest and tranquillity will arrive. They live this way throughout their lives. The complete Jew, by contrast, doesn’t look forward for the days to pass. He lives with internal peace. He is the one who “loves days in order to see goodness.” The “Divrei Shaul” helps explain to us the merchant’s intention when he declares, “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days in order to see goodness.” He informs Rabbi Yannai that he does not need to resort to his potion; meaning, he is not among those who constantly look forward to the time when the “difficult days” will have passed. We also now understand what the Torah means when it says about Avraham Avinu, “Ve’Avraham zakein ba ba’yamim” (literally, “Avraham was old, he had come upon days”) – he looked upon each day of his life lovingly, because he was content and at peace with himself.