Monday, September 26, 2022

In school, my class recently learned the story in Sefer Bamidbar about Miriam’s tzara’at. According to the text, God inflicted her with tzara’at because she spoke badly of Moshe Rabbeinu behind his back. Tzara’at is well known for being a disease from Biblical times that was a punishment for lashon hara, evil speech and slander. As we were discussing the implications of tzara’at in class, we raised the question of what if tzara’at existed today? Would that be a blessing or a curse? We would have to deal with this horrible disease, but we also would probably stop talking badly about others behind their backs.

I mentioned a thought experiment to my classmates: What if everyone had tzara’at? After all, most if not all people are guilty of lashon hara in some way (myself included, I’m sure). But if everyone had tzara’at splotches popping up on their skin, would people actually be compelled to change their ways? If everyone has something, it seems as if it’s the “new normal,” that it’s something that’s okay because everyone is involved. This is a common group mentality that I’ve seen before; for instance (rest assured, this is very uncommon), when classmates of mine ask everyone in the class not to do the homework, because if no one does it—that is, everyone does not do it—then the teacher can’t penalize the class. It’s a faulty mentality, of course. The teacher still has the power to punish the class for not doing the homework, and in the thought experiment, just because everyone has tzara’at doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly a good thing. But it’s a mentality that people still have.

Continuing the thought experiment for a moment, what if there were some incredible people who—even as most of the world got inflicted—didn’t receive tzara’at? Given how challenging it is to not speak lashon hara in some form in this day and age, that would be an astonishing feat. Those people would be worthy of respect and honor, wouldn’t they? But think about this: everyone else with tzara’at would look at them and see them as different. They are the exception, the “other.” And as history sadly shows, mankind has a terrible record of treating any perceived “other” properly. The non-tzara’at people in this made-up world would probably be ignored and maybe even persecuted.

It doesn’t seem like this thought experiment could come true anytime soon (although it admittedly could make an interesting dystopian novel), but I’ve realized that it could apply to lashon hara and even just general behavior nowadays. We don’t have tzara’at, true, but we do often have the mentality of “if everyone is doing it, it must be okay.” Everyone is often talking about the latest gossip and what they heard about their friends and speculating about who’s in trouble and who did what. Obviously I see this with teenagers, but it applies to both younger kids and adults as well; it applies to everyone (once again, myself included; as much as I try to keep my speech clean and good, I know that I’ve slipped up sometimes). And when so much of our discussions and social scene revolve around discussing or disparaging other people, the ones who don’t want to do so find themselves feeling left out at best and hurtfully ostracized at worst. It’s incredibly difficult for them not to hear and be drawn into the slander permeating much of the world. The internet only worsens the situation; with social media it’s so easy to leave a quick, hurtful comment that will be seen by far too many people and spread around to places where you’d never want it to be seen.

This is a particular problem when something happens that just begs to be discussed. Talking in general terms, let’s say a student gets suspended for doing something wrong, but to the other students it’s unclear what happened. Is it okay to speculate and discuss what happened and what he or she possibly got in trouble for? After all, it was clearly something bad. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem morally right to speculate about something like that when that person’s fate hangs in the balance, and it seems like it could fall into the category of loshon hara, whether it’s meant maliciously or not. What if it was a teacher who left abruptly in the middle of the year for unknown reasons? Doesn’t talking about what happened and showing concern show that you care for that teacher and care what happened to them? Or is the speculation still unwarranted and not the right thing to do?

An example that’s even more of a gray area: Someone else hurts your friend, and your friend wants to discuss it with you and disparage the other person, needing your support and validation as he recovers. Is it still wrong to listen to him disparage another and for you to say mean things about the other person? Or does the fact that he needs your help and that he was hurt by the other person supersede any possibility of it being lashon hara?

This is why lashon hara is so hard to prevent and figure out, and why tzara’at was necessary; something blatant and harsh like blotches on your skin was needed in order to impress upon you the seriousness of it. What we can do nowadays, without tzara’at, is to try to watch our speech more; it’s impossible for any of us to prevent everything, but we can try to do as much as we can to not talk badly of others. When others start talking badly of others to us, we can ask them not to or we can make a strong effort to change the subject. This should be the case whether it’s in person or online, where the slander can spread and balloon to an issue out of our control. None of us will ever be perfect at this, but we should make an effort to try; after all, we wouldn’t look very good with tzara’at.

Oren Oppenheim, age 17, is a junior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist, but currently is drowning in emails from colleges. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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