Being the target of gossip can make things very awkward, very quickly. How do you act around people who’ve been talking about you behind your back? Do you continue to relate to them as though nothing happened? Confront the gossiper directly? Resort to some form of passive-aggressive retaliation? Or maybe retreat from social interaction to nurse your wounds in private?

When taken We all take part in creating our environmentto an extreme, gossip can lead to destroyed friendships, loss of self-confidence, increased stress, illness, job loss, and even suicide. But though we’re viscerally aware of the negative effects of gossip, how many of us can say that we’ve never indulged in it ourselves? Maybe we simply want to be in the know and not miss out on important information. Maybe we’ve felt the sting of someone’s nasty personality and want confirmation that we’re not alone. Maybe we’re projecting our own insecurities and weaknesses onto others. But constantly bathing in negativity takes its toll on us as well. We all take part in creating our environment, and whatever poison we contribute, we will have to live with its effects.

The Gemara says that lashon hara—spreading true, derogatory information about someone else—harms three people: the speaker, the listener and the subject of the gossip.1 During biblical times, the punishment for evil speech was swift: the speaker would be stricken with tzaraat, a disease that required one to be isolated from the camp.

Ever since the Holy Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were dispersed, tzaraat no longer afflicts those who speak evil speech. No longer do spiritual phenomena immediately manifest themselves in physical form. But it is clear that those who engage in gossip, constant criticism and negativity also suffer a host of physical ills. The Torah’s message—to avoid speaking ill of others, and to bring out their strengths through positive speech—is, unsurprisingly, also a recipe for a physically and psychologically healthy life.

So, how do we stop the epidemic of gossip? Oddly enough, dwelling at length on the negative effects of gossip does little to stop its spread. It seems that the more we talk about how terrible it is to gossip, the stronger our urge to indulge in it becomes. We condemn the gossiper while not confronting the ways that we feed into it.

This week we read the dual Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora. The portion of Tazria discusses the various symptoms and identifying marks of tzaraat, while Metzora deals with the purification process.

The names of the two joined Parshiot, however, could not be more different in character. The word tazria means “to conceive,” and the Parshah begins with the laws of a woman who has just given birth. Metzora refers to one who has tzaraat, a serious condition likened to death.2

Yet the juxtaposition of these two names gives us a powerful insight into overcoming the negative effects of gossip and slander. The recovery process for the metzora holds within it the key to tazria—the flourishing of new life. The enforced isolation of the metzora is intended as a time of self-reflection and personal growth.

When we find We need to take a breakourselves caught in a web of gossip, that’s a clue that we need to take a break. We need to step outside that social interaction until we can figure out what’s going wrong. What inner need of ours is going unfulfilled, to the point that we are taking our frustrations out on others? Are we feeling small and depleted, and trying to put down others to compensate? Or maybe we’re just bored, and need more stimulating activities to occupy our mind. The way to stop lashon hara is not by condemning it, but by isolating it—reflecting on the circumstances that lead to it, and finding ways to nurture ourselves so we have less of a need to demean others.

What is true of tzaraat is true of all punishments mentioned in the Torah—they are not meant as retribution, but as opportunities for healing and recovery. The most extreme form of isolation found in the Torah is galut, exile—banishment from our land and from G‑d’s presence. We may wonder what severe sins we could have committed to justify our lengthy exile and persecution.

But as we learn from the name Tazria-Metzora, the purpose of exile is not just punishment. Whatever we are going through now is meant to lead to a greater rebirth. The future revelation “is dependent on our deeds and work over the course of exile,” as explained in Tanya.3 Whatever our circumstances are, challenging or painful as they may be, they are given to us as an opportunity to work through them and come to a place of greater insight and understanding. Then we realize that the struggles and the growth are intertwined—not that one leads to or follows the other. In the days of Moshiach, the complete picture will be revealed to us. We will see how every mitzvah we did during exile, every act of fortitude and courage, directly brought the redemption, on a personal and universal level.

(Based on Likutei Sichot, vol. 22, pp. 70–80.)