Backbiting, or the Hebrew term “evil tongue,” is on everyone’s lips these days. People talk badly about their neighbor just because they have a different opinion politically and perhaps spiritually. The left-wing media often only reports about the evil on the other side, and the right-wing media does exactly the same thing, only in reverse. Of course, this is nothing new, but in our time the evil tongue is amplified and further twisted by the phenomenon of fake news.
God created the world with words, why do we have to destroy the world with words? I was discussing this with friends on Friday and someone drew a link to the current week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. The evil tongue separates people and that is exactly what is so very noticeable in our country today. We speak evil against our neighbor instead of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
And you can read about division among the people in chapter 13 of Leviticus.
“The leper shall walk about in torn clothes, with his head bared and his lips covered, and he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the mark is on him he shall remain unclean, for he is unclean. He shall sit alone, outside the camp.”
For many, Leviticus is often just a dry book full of rules. But these are the biblical instructions for a leper that can save the lives of those around him. The leper cries out, I’m unclean. This is an automatic statement of separation. “Get away from me.” He doesn’t want to infect the people around him. He separates himself from the people and must “sit alone, outside the camp.” This is not an easy case. One is alone.
But what does that have to do with the Evil Tongue? Let me explain. In another story someone speaks evil of another and is punished with leprosy because of the evil tongue, or backbiting, as we might call it today. This is what happened in the story of Miriam and Moses when he married Zipporah (Numbers 12).
“Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.”
Miriam was a respected prophetess. As a prophetess, shouldn’t she have known that backbiting has consequences?
“And behold, Miriam was as leprous as snow.”
Very little has changed in our day. This same exact thing happened in the family of my friends, whose daughter married an Ethiopian Jew. The grandmother in particular couldn’t believe her granddaughter would marry an Ethiopian of all people.
Back to the Bible. With her evil tongue, Miriam wanted to make Moses’ dark-skinned wife unpopular, in other words, to separate her from the people. Then she became a leper. According to biblical rules, she now had to announce that she was unclean. And with that she suffered exactly what she had planned for Moses’ wife. She had to separate herself from the people because of her illness and “sit alone outside the camp.”
Gossip has consequences and affects also the gossiper. Speeches and words should bring hearts together. Also in the New Testament, James writes that the tongue is like a consuming fire (chapter 3). Verse 6 informs us:
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
We all like to talk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we must be careful and avoid speaking ill of others. It’s not that difficult, because none of us talks bad about ourselves. What is currently dividing the nation more than anything else is the hostile rhetoric, the evil tongue being employed against the other. And this will lead to punishment for all sides, the entire nation. God help us to make amends and keep our tongues under control during Memorial Day and Independence celebrations this week.
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