Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted but words can’t be taken back.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

Of all the curious laws of tzaraas, one stands out in particular. A person whose skin is entirely bleached white from the illness is not impure, and is not quarantined from the camp.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that it is simply impossible for a Jew to be so absolutely in the wrong that he must be forced to leave.

Yet when such a person begins to heal slightly, they become impure under the regular laws of tzaraas.

This seems counter intuitive. Why does recovery make him worse off?

Rabbi Farhi teaches that so long as a person is completely covered, he’s well aware that there’s plenty to fix. When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. Once there’s something else to hold on to, he can righteously cling to the little bit of goodness, but doing so will ultimately prevent him from acknowledging the need to improve in other areas.

In order to get better, it is essential to recognize our shortcomings.

The Torah discusses an illness called Tzaraas. The Torah does not usually discuss diseases and maladies; but this is no ordinary illness which require isolation and quarantine. Consider that the man whose entire body was stricken was not quarantined at all. Chazal understand it to be a spiritual shortcoming that was biologically manifest. The diagnosis:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן וְהִנֵּה כִסְּתָה הַצָּרַעַת אֶת כָּל בְּשָׂרוֹ וְטִהַר אֶת הַנָּגַע כֻּלּוֹ הָפַךְ לָבָן טָהוֹר הוּא – The kohen should check the white mark. If it has cleared from his skin, it is purified. If it has spread and infected his entire body white, he too is purified. (13:13)

If the lesion or mark did not clear within a week, the man was sent away from the city for a week, after which he is reinspected.

The isolation is a central part of the rehabilitation and healing process, but why?

Chazal understand that the illness was strongly correlated to gossip, which the Torah is highly sensitive to. Gossip is a highly destructive force, tearing apart the fabric of society by planting harmful ideas, ruining perceptions and relationships. A mark on the arm or let can be disguised by wearing longer clothing. This is why a metzora must leave their community – the gossip has blended into a society he is actually destabilising. Such a person is not welcome – they are a fake, and not how they appear – and since he can blend, people are not on their guard. The isolation is not just for him, but for society.

The Rema notes that this could well be why the metzora whose entire body is stricken is not sent away; their physical condition matches their spiritual condition. When people see this metzora, they know to steer well clear just by looking.

Solitary exile may seem a little extreme, but R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the punishment fits the crime; the gossip – if telling the truth – is exacting over the finer details of other peoples lives. Such an expert is forced to introspect and confront his own character flaws, by being on his own for a week.

Tzaraas also affects clothing, and the Torah details the laws. The Torah specifies how the clothing is fit for regular use:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן … וְהִנֵּה לֹא הָפַךְ הַנֶּגַע אֶת עינו – The kohen should check… if the eye of the mark had not normalised… (13:55).

The central part in the personal recovery of tzaraas is הָפַךְ אֶת עינו – for the eye to revert. Figuratively speaking, the character flaw that causes tzaraas is the intrusive eye. By the end of his isolation, his eyes should be fixed firmly inward.

When the State of Israel declared independence, the newly born state was overwhelmingly attacked, and Jews were fighting and dying daily. A student remarked to the Brisker Rov how, “It’s the secular people’s fault! If they kept Shabbos surely no one would die!”

The Brisker Rov dismissed such foolishness, “The prophet Yonah fled from God, rather than cause any negative outcome for the Jews. He preferred to write himself off rather than betray his brothers. When God sent a storm after him, he blamed himself and preferred to be thrown off a boat – בשלי הסער הגדול הזה! Even if the entire nation were idol worshippers like then, we don’t look to others for accountability, we say בשלי הסער הגדול הזה – this great storm is all my fault.

We do not judge our fellow’s actions, we only say, “How can I make it better?””