Guard your tongue!

When Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress in 1848, he first listened to his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, who, as the keynote speaker, spoke for nearly 90 minutes. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. He spoke for only one minute, saying simply: “Until now I always suspected that my opponent was a fool. Now, he has confirmed that beyond doubt.” With that, he sat down. Rather than engage with this man to his own detriment, Lincoln opted for silence, thereby preserving his dignity and limiting his capacity for negative speech.

These days, we focus so much on improving our appearance – on camouflaging, correcting, or enhancing our bodies. While the Jewish way of life encourages health and self-preservation, our efforts to beautify ourselves should go beyond the physical. After all, it’s what goes on inside of us – the thoughts and attitudes that predict our future speech and behavior – that really matters.

For a bit of spiritual perspective, let’s revisit biblical times and examine how inner character work was encouraged then. In the Torah it is written that a person who has contracted the skin condition tzara’at — loosely translated as “leprosy, — is considered “impure” and should be sent to live outside of the main camp until the kohen, priest, declares him “pure” again. The ancient sages link the contracting of tzara’at to lashon ha-ra – the dissemination of evil speech – because the prophetess Miriam was stricken with leprosy after she spoke ill of her brother, Moses. And indeed many of the people affected with tzara’at during biblical times had spoken badly of others.

While in isolation, the afflicted person was ordered to examine his behavior, because the tzara’at that presented itself upon a person’s body back then, was a symptom of something deeper – the Creator’s way of alerting someone that inner work needed to be done. Often, the area that needed to be rectified had to do with the words that came off that person’s tongue. So, in particular, he was expected to examine his speech and work to eliminate the practice of speaking lashon ha-ra, damaging speech, about another person. This push towards self-improved was always felt to be worthwhile – because once the individual in question did the work necessary to correct his speech, his tzara’at would disappear. The kohen would then declare him ready to immerse in the purifying waters of the mikveh, ritual bath, and rejoin the community.

A modern-day reader may find this phenomena hard to relate to. But all of the episodes in the Torah are timeless. So, how might we apply the leprosy narrative to our own lives? Our skin is the permeable barrier between our internal organs and external flesh – our inside and outside, if you will. It represents our boundaries, our choices about what to let in and what to let out. The faculty of speech is the channel through which we bring our inner thoughts into the outside world. Consciously choosing to use positive speech has a beneficial effect on human beings and enhances interpersonal relationships. Our great rabbis have said that adherence to proper speech is the single most important factor in determining our portion in the World to Come. It also empowers our prayer, validates our Torah learning, and invokes blessings and divine protection.

The preventative against speaking lashon ha-ra is to spend time improving ourselves on the inside, diligently working to correct our thoughts, speech, and actions. By exercising self-control, we can achieve a spiritual transformation—an inner makeover that will reflect outward, through our skin and our entire being. When we sincerely work to eradicate our faults, we become liberated from our bad habits and self-imposed limitations. We can then look outside of ourselves, connecting more deeply with our families, friends, and communities. And before we know it, our obsession with external appearance will be a thing of the past. Instead of being scrupulous about what we put into our mouths, we’ll find ourselves being vigilant about what comes out of our mouths! May our internal efforts to improve merit us seeing miraculous transformations in our own lives and may the world shine with beauty, truth, and lasting peace as a result.