This week’s parsha discusses tzaraas, a spiritually-caused physical affliction that was primarily the result of Loshon Hara, gossiping or speaking negatively about another (Arachin 15b). When one was afflicted with tzaraas, he was required to go to the Kohen who would verify the tzaraas and pronounce him impure. Interestingly, the severe status of impurity did not begin at the time that tzaraas appeared on the body. Rather, even if many kohanim and experts verified that one had tzaraas for a long period of time, the impurity only began once the Kohen VERBALIZED that he is impure (Negaim 3:1). His impurity relied so greatly on the Kohen’s verbalization, in fact, that if the Kohen recognized tzaraas but delayed his verbal declaration, out of respect for a sheva brachos (one's wedding day and the 6 festive days that follow) that a person with tzaraas is in the midst of, the impurity only took effect after the Kohen ARTICULATED that the man is impure, instead of from the time of the actual affliction (Nega’im 3:4).
When it comes to all other cases of impurity, one was considered impure from the moment that the cause of impurity occurred. Why did tzaraas, in particular, require the words of the Kohen in order for the impurity to commence?
Perhaps we can answer this by addressing another question: Hashem created this world with dibur, words (see parshas Bereishis). Why did Hashem specifically do so with the spoken word, instead of through thought or some other means?
Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was hired by the Vienna General Hospital in Europe on July 1, 1846, to work in the maternity ward. There were two maternity clinics in the hospital at the time. The first clinic had a maternal mortality rate of about 10%. The second clinic's rate was considerably lower, averaging less than 4%. Inexplicably, even mothers who gave birth in their homes had a better health rate than those that gave birth in the first clinic. Semmelweis was severely troubled by this, but he couldn’t figure out what the cause could be. The two clinics used practically identical techniques. The only major difference was the individuals who worked there. The first clinic was run by medical students who came to deliver babies after their morning work with cadavers (dead bodies), while the second clinic was exclusively run by midwives.
The breakthrough occurred in 1847. Dr.Semmelweis concluded that the medical students carried "germs" on their hands from the cadavers in the autopsy room to the patients they examined in the first clinic. This explained why the student midwives in the second clinic, who were not engaged in autopsies and had no contact with corpses, saw a much lower mortality rate.
The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed. Thus, Semmelweis concluded some unknown "cadaverous material" caused childbed fever. He instituted a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime for washing hands between autopsy-work and the examination of patients. The results were simply incredible. The mortality rate in the first clinic dropped dramatically from 10% to 1.9%. In the year following his discovery, the death rate was 0%.
Unfortunately, Dr. Semmelweis’ failure to convince his fellow doctors of “invisible germs” led to a tragic conclusion. Dr. Semmelweis's hypothesis, that there was only one cause of disease, that all that mattered was cleanliness, was extreme at the time and was largely ignored, rejected, or ridiculed. His practices of cleanliness and his belief in germs were completely disregarded by the other doctors and many patients died as a result of their ignorance. Semmelweis was promptly dismissed from the hospital and harassed by the medical community. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind, and in 1865, nearly twenty years after his breakthrough, he was committed to an asylum. Semmelweis's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, offering a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis's findings.
Like germs, Loshon Hara is an invisible killer, one that can cause very real and devastating destruction if precautionary measures are not taken seriously. While its harm cannot be seen by the naked eye, it can cause severe destruction on our relationships with our fellow Jew and our own well-being both in This World, as well as in the World to Come.
The greatest danger of Loshon Hara is the fact that while it is more severe than idolatry, adultery, and murder combined (Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1), its results are invisible, leaving the great risk of its danger being taken too lightly. Indeed, one could easily make the mistake of thinking that words are utterly harmless and that they have no real impact on the world or the people around them. In order to dispel this notion, and in order to demonstrate the power of speech, Hashem specifically created the entire universe with WORDS. It is also for this reason that when it comes to tzaraas, the punishment for Loshon Hara, the Torah put so much power specifically in the WORDS of the Kohen. This was intended to demonstrate just how real, potent, and concrete our words are. They have the ability to create worlds and nurture spiritual growth and, at the same time, they have the ability to utterly destroy them.
The Chofetz Chaim’s lifetime efforts to make the world aware of the incredible danger of Loshon Hara can, in a sense, be compared to Dr.Semmelweis’ efforts to make the world aware of germs*. Will you take the Chofetz Chaim’s very strong warnings regarding the danger of Loshon Hara to heart, thereby saving our nation from exile, not to mention your own personal spirituality and relationships? Will you follow his paramount advice to study the laws of Loshon Hara daily? Or will you choose to disregard, ignore and reject his advice, as Dr.Semmelweis‘s peers did? This monumental life decision is ours.
*- The Chofetz Chaim devoted his life to writing his magnum opus, the "Sefer Chofetz Chaim”, which compiles the various biblical sources describing the gravity of the sin of Loshon Hara, its detrimental effects, as well as the overall laws of proper speech. He urged every Jew to study his work daily.