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In our parsha, we find various types of plagues that may strike man and his belongings. The plagues may occur on three different levels – on man himself (on his skin), on his clothes and belongings and on his house. The sages gave reasons for these plagues. For example, the plague of the skin comes as a punishment for speaking lashon harah – “evil speech” regarding others. We learn this from Miriam, sister of Moshe, who was struck with a white plague on her skin as she gave an incorrect report regarding her brother.

Chassidic literature, however, seems to have a different take on this rare event. The Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad movement, explains that tzara’at (the Hebrew name of the plague) was actually a rare disease that struck only the most spiritually accomplished people, who had developed their minds and honed their emotions in spiritual pursuit. In fact, they were so accomplished in Torah and mitzvoth that all that remained for them was to refine their outer, “external” qualities, such as their speech. Inside, they were complete human beings, but what remained for them was to polish and uplift the “garments” of their soul, such as their speech. This interpretation is implied in the verse, “When Adam will have a plague on his skinŔ (Lev. 13:2). The use of Adam, rather than ish, or any other Hebrew word for “man,” implies the highest level of humanity. In Hebrew, there are four terms meaning “human-kind,” and Adam is the highest of them.

Still, our sages (in tractate Erechin 15B) tell us that lashon harah (“evil speech”) is so severe that it is counted as one of the cardinal sins, for which one must allow himself to be executed rather than to transgress. So how is it possible for the plague to strike the most accomplished of men, who in all other respects were spiritually complete and perfect? Moreover, the Alter Rebbe says that tzara’at was actually a “miraculous event,” and bases himself upon the same law (at the end of Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at) in which the Rambam says that lashon harah can lead to denial of G-d! So, how can it possibly be true that tzara’at only occurred to the most spiritually accomplished men?

We’ll understand tzara’at, the Rambam and the Alter Rebbe much better by examining the full text of the Rambam at the end of his laws of Tumat Tzara’at (“impurity of the plague”). There, the Rambam says that we learn the laws of lashon harah “a priori from Miriam, and apply them to those wicked and foolish men who speak at length on fantastic and amazing notions…and this is the way of evil scoffers who begin by speaking at length about nonsense…and eventually they come to speak in disgrace of the righteous…and eventually they become accustomed to speaking disrespectfully of the prophets and to find fault in their words…this leads them to speak about G-d and to deny His existence…all this from the conversation of wicked people sitting on the corners and places of meeting of the ignorant as well as pubs and beer-houses. But, the conversation of proper Jews revolves only around Torah and wisdomŔ

We need to examine this statement of the Rambam. First of all, the subject here is lashon harah - “evil speech” leading to tzara’at – the “plague” that strikes the skin. So, why does the Rambam launch a long discussion of the speech of wicked people in general, starting with how they speak nonsense (not lashon harah) and ending with denial of G-d? Such a discussion would seem to belong in a different section of the Rambam, in his hilchot deot (“laws of conduct and outlook”).

Second, if the Rambam’s purpose is to bring out the severity of speaking lashon harah, why does he not use the same expressions that he uses in Hilchot Deot? For example, in Hilchot Deot, the Rambam says that one who speaks lashon harah is “as if he denies the existence of G-d.” Here, however (in Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at), he only says that bad things (including denial of G-d) “later emerge” from such lashon harah. This is less severe than saying that lashon harah is tantamount to denial…

By way of explanation, it seems that the Rambam divides the laws of lashon harah into two categories. First of all, there are the results of lashon harah (for example, how it “kills three people – the speaker, the listener and the one spoken about”). This refers to how the bad qualities of the speaker cause damage to other people. This aspect is dealt with in Hilchot Deot – the Rambam’s “laws of conduct and proper outlook.” There, the entire chapter is devoted to improper speech and conduct and how to avoid it.

However, in Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at, the Rambam deals with the sin of lashon harah itself. G-d granted man the power of speech. And even though it seems to be extraneous, a “garment” of the soul alone, nevertheless speech is associated with the very essence of the soul (as we see that man is described as medaber – “a speaker”). For that reason, the power of speech must be guarded and used wisely. When it isn’t, and someone speaks lashon harah, his power of speech drags him down and makes him even more evil. This is what the Rambam sought to bring out at the end of his laws of Tumat Tzara’at (“impurity of tzara’at”); he started by warning us to avoid the conduct of the “wicked and foolish men, who speak at length about fantastic and amazing notions,” which is speech that does not contain lashon harah. And then, he explained that it is the “way of evil scoffers to begin by speaking nonsense at lengthŔ (and in this speech as well, there is no evidence of any personal bad qualities). Nevertheless, this very speech is what leads the person speaking to the very depths of evil.

And then, the Rambam “defines” lashon harah by delineating the category; it is the speech of “wicked people.” The emphasis is upon those who are careless in their speech, so that it damages other people. Those who speak in the manner and style of the wicked – wherein one is not careful with his speech and ends up damaging others – are guilty of lashon harah. This the Rambam forewarns from the very beginning, when he describes how the plague comes to prevent lashon harah – “when one’s skin changes and he is stricken with tzara’at” – then the person must “remain quarantined and it is publicized that he is alone, until he ceases speaking like the wicked, with scoffing and evil language.”

At first glance, “speaking like the wicked,” and “scoffing” are not really part of the equation here, where the Rambam wishes to define lashon harah. Why are they even mentioned? But apparently, the Rambam wishes to inform us that the kind of lashon harah that leads to the plague is a detail of and comes from “speaking like the wicked” in general. It is a lacking and a fault in the external expression of the person, which is why the plague strikes the person’s skin – to tell him that his external expressions are not what they should be.

Accordingly, we can now understand why the Rambam emphasizes that we derive the transgression of lashon harah from Miriam. As the Rambam says, “About this, the Torah warned us…meditate upon what happened to Miriam.” This is because the punishment of tzara’at comes not as a result of the first aspect of lashon harah mentioned above (its damaging results, as described in Hilchot Deot). Rather the punishment is over the very speech itself, which is described as “lashon harah,” even though it is only the “way that evil people speak,” without necessarily containing evil content or intent. This is clear in the case of Miriam, who intended nothing evil in her report about her brother Moshe. On the contrary, Miriam raised Moshe, even endangering herself in helping to pull him out of the river. She had no intention of disgracing her brother, and neither was Moshe offended or insulted by her speech. But, since she “erred” in her speech, even though her error was only an extraneous statement, nevertheless she was punished with tzara’at.

And now we can also understand the length to which the Rambam writes as he traces the progress the plague from the walls of one’s house all the way to his very skin. First, the plague affects his walls, then “if he remains wicked…it affects the skin vessels in his house.” And thereafter, if the person still refuses to rectify his speech, the plague “affects his skin and he is afflicted with the plague.” This process parallels the content of lashon harah and its order. In the beginning, lashon harah is completely external speech that seems to do no harm whatsoever. That is why the tzara’at first affects only his house, without touching him at all. But, the more he speaks, the more he himself is drawn into his speech and it becomes intrinsic to his nature. Therefore, the plague attaches itself to objects that are closer to him, such as his tools, and his clothes, and eventually – he himself (his skin). (However, when the evil is so internal that it is indistinguishable from the person himself, the plague does not exist, since its sole purpose is to forewarn against evil speech in one’s externalities).

And that brings us full circle to the Alter Rebbe and his Chassidic interpretation of tzara’at – that it only strikes those who are spiritually accomplished, who have perfected themselves except for their external power of speech. Not only is this no contradiction to the Rambam, but the two interpretations complement one another. The caution that the Rambam emphasized regarding speech is not about its results and its potential for damage. Rather, it is about the need to guard our general power of speech and use it for holy purposes. Even though speech is a mere “garment” of the soul and its medium of expression, it nevertheless has the power to reveal who we are, with all of our faults and qualities. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the most accomplished of people to watch and guard their speech well.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 22, pp. 65-69 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem