One of the most challenging categories of Jewish law is the one associated with lashon harah (which literally means ‘evil speech’ and refers to gossip and slander). What is assumed by many to be a natural part of human communication is considered, in Jewish tradition, to be a terrible transgression. After all, when one defames the character of another person, the damage can never be truly undone.
In the days of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Temple, speaking lashon harah almost always resulted in the physical affliction known as tzara’at (often incorrectly translated as leprosy). One who had been diagnosed with tzara’at had to live away from other people until he/she healed. Once the person was declared healed, “the priest will command to take for him that is to be cleansed two living clean birds, and cedar-wood, and scarlet, and hyssop…” (Leviticus 14:4). These items were then used in a purification ritual.
The Midrash provides a fascinating insight into the significance of the use of cedar and hyssop in this offering:
King Solomon in fact asked, ‘Why is the leper purified by means of the tallest and lowliest of trees, viz. with the cedar and hyssop? Because through making himself lofty like the cedar a man is smitten with leprosy; but when he makes himself small and humbles himself like the hyssop, which is a lowly plant, he will eventually be healed’ (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:35).
Often people raise themselves up by putting others down. Suffering the consequences of such actions is a lesson in humility that is hard to forget.
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