In Parshiot Tazria-Metzora we learn about the Tzora’at affliction which, we are told, appears in response to a variety of spiritual failings – including lashon hara. As such, it would appear that these laws are intended to serve as a reminder for us to live with a heightened level of spiritual awareness and with a greater awareness of the impact of our words.
Yet while Rambam (Tumat Tzora’at 11:6) rules that these laws apply even today in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash, I believe that many of us struggle to comprehend the concept of Tzora’at, and while there are many instruction manuals concerning the laws of lashon hara, it remains something that we struggle with.
This is why the Torah (Devarim 24:8-9) informs us to ‘take care with regard to a tzara’at blemish’ by remembering ‘what God your Lord did to Miriam’. As Rashi explains, ‘if you wish to take care that you not be stricken with tzora’at, do not speak lashon hara and remember what was done to Miriam who spoke [lashon hara] about her brother and who was stricken with tzora’at’. In fact, this is one of the ‘six remembrances’ that we are urged to recall on a daily basis. But what did Miriam actually say?
Rambam (Tumat Tzora’at 16:10) writes that Miriam ‘did not speak pejoratively of [Moshe]; she merely erred in equating him with the other prophets’. This means that Miriam (& Aharon’s) remarks about Moshe’s conduct (see Bemidbar 12:2) were not in-and-of-themselves words of insult. Yet they ignored Moshe’s unique qualities as a unique prophet.
To me this is both a profound insight concerning the story of Miriam as well as the laws of lashon hara. Words of lashon hara are not merely words that hurt. Instead, they are words expressing the fact that we have lost sight of the unique qualities of another. They highlight a deep character flaw of the speaker, and they can sow seeds of doubt in the target of these words, such that they question their very essence.
The laws of Tzora’at and the story of Miriam therefore serve as a clear and simple reminder: Remember that you are unique – just like everyone else!