This week we read about tzara'at, usually translated as "leprosy". This isn't leprosy in the modern medical sense; it's a spiritual affliction, not a medical condition. Our sages agree that it results from lashon hara, evil speech.
One question that strikes me about this is: why is this transgression singled out for special treatment? There are many other sins that harm other people in serious ways -- murder, stealing, cheating in business, and so on. Yet we don't hear of something like tazra'at for robbers. Why not?
There is a famous story in which a man goes to his rebbe and says: I have committed lashon hara and I want to make it good; what do I do? The rebbe tells him: go home, get your largest feather pillow, take it to the center of town, rip it open, and wave it around until the case is empty; then come back to me. The man thinks this is an odd penance, but he does as his rebbe tells him. The next day he returns to the rebbe and says: I have done what you asked; am I forgiven now? No, says the rebbe, that was only the first half. Now you have to go back to the center of town and gather up every one of the feathers.
The man protests -- that's impossible! Those feathers have scattered far and wide by now; how could I find them all? Ah, says the rebbe -- the feathers are like your words.
With lashon hara you can't undo the damage. There is no compensation that will make things right with the victim. Once it's said, it's out there. So the only way to fix it is to change yourself so that you don't say it in the future.
Tzara'at proceeds in three stages. The torah talks about them in the opposite order, but first your house is afflicted. If this happens, the kohein comes, diagnoses it, rebukes you, and tells you to mend your ways. If that doesn't work then your clothes are afflicted -- and the kohein comes, diagnoses it, rebukes you, and tells you to mend your ways. If even that doesn't work, then your body is afflicted -- and the kohein comes, diagnoses it, rebukes you, tells you to mend your ways, and sends you into quarantine where you have no choice but to face the problem and deal with it, because you're not coming back until the affliction clears.
[I was considering talking about the case where the person is completely afflicted here, but decided against based on time.]
I said before that tzara'at results from lashon hara. I didn't say that it's a punishment, because I don't think it is. It's structured to be a wake-up call, a warning, a prod to change your behavior. We don't get these warnings today, so we have to be careful to monitor ourselves -- we won't get an ominous blotch in the plaster to tell us we're messing up.
Lashon hara is a serious issue. In addition to spreading very quickly like the feathers, it also affects a large number of people, as people hear it, judge the target of the gossip, and spread it further. The feathers don't just spread; they multiply. This is why we have to catch it early, whether through a blotch in the plaster or our own awareness of what we are about to say.