What do you think is the cruelest punishment that society can inflict? The obvious answer is the death penalty, because we think that there is nothing worse than death. The correct answer is, however, solitary confinement. Why? Research has shown that the clinical effects of isolation are tantamount to extreme physical torture. And thus, contrary to the stereotype of all death row inmates filing endless appeals to prolong their lives in jail, a significant number of inmates on death row elect to forgo appeals and choose execution over prolonged solitary confinement.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we read about tzara’at, which is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. In fact, tzara’at are blemishes that can appear on one’s clothing, the walls of a person’s home and, ultimately, the body of a person who engages in lashon hara, which is normally understood as derogatory speech, usually about another person.
Developing tzara’at is a gradual process, and when unmitigated, it leads to a procedure in which the High Priest proclaims the gossip monger to be “unclean,” expelling that person from the community to live alone until cured.
Unlike the secular laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip monger that “out.” As a matter of fact, there is a presumption that the person is convinced that his or her gossip is true! If the person was spreading false gossip – slander – then it’s an entirely different sin, because we should not misuse the power of speech to lie. After all, truth is a Divine attribute, and we want to emulate divinity.
So can we punished for our negative speech – when what we say is true? And why is the punishment one of expulsion and isolation? After all, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” According to the Torah, however, not only do our words actually hurt the person we are talking about, but they hurt the person who is speaking lashon hara as well as the person or people listening to it. It’s the perfect trifecta of bad. Is that fair?
We often think that our perceptions and opinions about a situation or person are the truth, which makes us feel justified and right. We create stories in our head and then we live in the stories we create, not even knowing the difference between story and “fact”. We decide the truth and anyone who doesn’t buy into our stories is also wrong.
Deep down, the source of all conflict really lies in the ego’s incessant need to be right, and the lengths we go to defend that need. It is this form of the ego that disintegrates relationships, undermines the fabric of society and disconnects us from the oneness and unity we should feel with our fellow and even with the natural world – hence, even our inanimate objects are affected with the blemishes of tzazar’at.
THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
Today, the focus of wellness is on the mind-body connection. The Torah teaches us the mind-body-soul connection. Gossip is only possible when we are ruled by the unhealthy part of our ego, which is rigidly self-absorbed and sees itself as wholly separate from the other person, and therefore unaffected by any pain that is caused.
Such a person is already disconnected from others, from the community, from God, and even from him or herself. Therefore, the punishment of expulsion is to help the person understand this, by getting the person to feel that pain and then return to the state of connection.
Being expelled, cast out, etc. are so painful for a psyche that fears disconnection that they are powerful forms of control. We are wired for connection. Our need for love and belonging is one of our highest needs. But when we are driven by our unhealthy ego, we can override our wiring.
In the wilderness, where we lived in a high state of holiness, a mind-body-soul connection betrayed or conveyed our true inner state. The outer was an accurate reflection of the inner. What you said behind someone’s back became written on your own body. We simply couldn’t fake our way out – or back in.
When the person truly felt the pain of disconnection and then corrected him or herself – mind, body and soul – so that the body was visibly healed from its blemishes – then, and only then was that person ready for the process of re-entry into community.
The Torah is not trying to break us with an elaborate game of “Time Out”; rather, the Torah is teaching us how to stay in the game. It’s not just that the person recovers to his or her former state, but that the person should grow to attain a new level of awareness – post-traumatic-growth syndrome!
A society which allows unhealthy egos to run rampant, causing divisiveness and fragmentation, is unhealthy. A holy society, on the other hand, recognizes the deeper understanding that in diminishing others, we also diminish ourselves. True peace is based on wholeness and connection When we check our unhealthy egos at the door, therefore, the gates of harmony open wide.