If you’re looking for a great goal in life, I have one for you. And it’s a BIG one: Let’s eradicate hurtful speech. Words can build, but they also can destroy. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,”1 we are told. Harmful speech, malicious gossip and insensitivity to others is pervasive, spreading virally, infecting minds, with a boomerang effect—it eventually comes back to bring negativity into one’s own life.

Shattered relationships are often the remnants of thoughtless, stinging, words. Even if the words spoken are true, the impact can wind up being the same, and the aftermath can continue to adversely impact future generations.

Our Torah sages describe a wise person as one who foresees the consequences of their actions.2 Imagine if each of us would say: “The buck stops here.” The transformative results of speaking kindly are positively life-changing.

In last week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we were commanded not to eat certain prohibited foods. Just as we must be concerned about what goes into our mouths, we must be as concerned and careful about what comes out of our mouths. Just as eating contaminated food can make you sick physically, speaking contaminated words can cause spiritual illness.

The Spiritual and Physical Interact

The double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora expounds on this. We are made aware that illness can have a spiritual cause. In the Torah’s description of the malady called tzara’at, the spiritual and physical interact. Tzara’at was a specific malady, resulting from harmful speech. The Torah tells us that tzara’at was not a result of physiological causes; it was a miraculous illness. Nevertheless, it was manifest through physical signs and symptoms.

The Hebrew term, metzora (someone afflicted with tzara’at), refers to a spreader of slander or one who brings about harm through his or her speech.3 The metzora would be isolated from the community for an indefinite period. This consequence was meant to heighten the offender’s awareness of the divisive effects of their harmful speech.

This time of separation was viewed not as punitive but as corrective. The isolation provided the metzora time for introspection, so as to examine and correct his or her errant behavior. The Torah instituted effective modes of rehabilitating miscreants long before correctional reforms were adopted by other cultures.

Not to be overlooked is the comprehensive way that tzara’at was treated. Torah recognized that tzara’at was a physical manifestation of a spiritual cause. The Torah’s treatment of tzara’at integrated a spiritual treatment to affect a positive outcome. It treated the entire person, not just the illness. The Torah’s approach was way ahead of its time.

The Kohain Diagnoses: Not the Doctor

A person who noticed certain skin discolorations would seek a kohen (Hebrew for “priest”), not a doctor. The kohen would examine the person to see if the blemish was more than superficial. The common idioms, “more than skin deep” and “beneath the surface,” whose origins can be traced to the biblical description of tzara’at, imply that the source of an illness is deeper than its superficial symptoms alone. A kohen, not a doctor, would render a “diagnosis” of tzara’at and guide the afflicted individual through the recovery process. This attests to the greater understanding of why tzara’at was treated spiritually—to attain a complete healing of both body and soul.

Maimonides, the 12th-century physician and Torah commentator, understood how the mind, body and soul are intrinsically connected. He taught that healing is predicated on a patient understanding the integrated factors contributing to an illness. Subsequently, appropriate treatment, including making necessary lifestyle changes, could occur.

The Rebbe often told people that bettering themselves spiritually, through increased Torah and mitzvot, would open channels for their physical wellbeing.

Recognizing the First Signs of Illness

The Torah relates that tzara’at presented itself in three different ways. In addition to the skin condition on the body, it could appear on clothes or on dwellings. The Talmud states that tzara’at would first appear in a person’s home as a warning from G‑d that something was amiss.4 If this warning was ignored, the tzara’at then appeared on his or her clothing. If this sign also went unheeded, then the affliction would manifest itself upon his or her body.

The relevance of not ignoring the outward signs of an illness—be it physical, spiritual or both—is eye-opening. We’re taught the importance of being proactive, not just reactive. The Torah alerts us to be vigilant—to identify and treat the signs so that a state of overall health is restored. These are the lessons that we can learn from the ancient malady of tzara’at.

Speak and Think Kindly

The life-affirming benefits of positive speech cannot be overemphasized. Kind words offer encouragement, understanding and appreciation; they fortify us. By choosing to accentuate the positive traits within ourselves and others, we enrich our environments.

By increasing our positive thoughts, we will come to strengthen our resolve to speak positively, as well. Every mindful moment can produce victory over negativity. Striving to dispel harmful speech starts with each of us. Using kind and positive speech will add value to your life and the lives around you. That’s a great purpose

Making It Relevant

  1. Recall examples of how hurtful speech has impacted your life or the lives of others. Resolve to prevent it in the future.
  2. A) Designate one hour a day during which you consciously refrain from speaking and listening to gossip or other negative speech. B) Once you have mastered this, add an hour to your “no-negativity” regimen. C) Repeat.
  3. While striving to practice kind, positive speech, you may sometimes falter. If that happens, don’t be discouraged. Think positively and press the reset button. Be relentless!
  4. Recognize the integrated aspects interacting in your spiritual, mental and physical health. Become mindful of the consequences of your choices on all three of these elements.