A headline in today’s Observer states ‘Attack ad. on Sunak leaves Labour voters cold’. It refers to the recent campaign accusing Rishi Sunak of ‘failing to put paedophiles in prison’.
Coincidentally, this week’s double parsha deals almost exclusively with a leprosy-like skin disease which afflicted those guilty of ‘lashon hara’, literally ‘evil speech. ’Following examination by a Cohen, those affected would undergo a process of total isolation, followed by a review seven days later. If given the all clear, they would then be readmitted into the community once they had provided the relevant korbanos (offerings.)
This complicated process, and the sheer length of explanation the Torah dedicates to it, shows us that ‘lashon hara’ is not just another ‘don’t’, but something far more significant than almost all the other mitzvos. The Talmud goes as far as to compare the severity of ‘lashon hara’ with that of the three prohibitions – idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relationships for which we are obligated to give our life, rather than transgress.
The Rabbis explain that ‘lashon hara’ is not simply a matter of spreading false information about a person, but includes unnecessarily speaking negatively about them, even when the content is true. It seems that referring to someone’s lack of intelligence, bad behaviour or dubious character is, in the eyes of the Torah, somehow comparable to murder!
Of course, every functioning society needs laws to protect its members. That slander is prohibited is no real surprise, but the severity with which Judaism treats all forms of derogative speech, even if actually true, is unique.
Rabbi Andrew Savage comments that ‘Man is the focal point of all of Creation. Every other created entity is essentially a means to provide humanity with the necessary environment and tools within which to function effectively, and achieve our individual and collective purpose.
What is the differentiating factor that makes human beings a more exalted creation than any other? Only human beings have the ability to communicate ideas and emotions of such subtlety and complexity. The power of communication, primarily through speech, is our greatest tool and is the basis of all human relationships, both with each other and with G-d, through prayer’.
It is sad that personal abuse and character assassination underpins much of current political discourse, but this sedra serves to remind us that the misuse of our most precious gift, the power of speech, is, from a Torah perspective, a really serious matter.