The main cause of tzaraas, the primary focus of parshios Tazria and Metzora, was lashon hara (slanderous speech). If a series of warnings would not effectively stop the individual from speaking slander, he would have to dwell outside the camp in isolation (Vayikra 13:46).
While in seclusion, the metzora wore torn clothes, allowed his hair to go uncut, and informed all passersby he was impure. The basis for these harsh sanctions was the fact that he spoke lashon hara, a corrosive behavior that divides and isolates people. An individual who is given to speaking lashon hara is by nature a social being. By definition then, isolation will be a fitting punishment for him.
This idea connects with something that has bothered me for some time: the wanton, unprovoked use of disparaging, racist comments among our youth. Over the years I have either heard directly or been made aware of many such comments by students. When I asked why they had expressed themselves in this manner, they could offer no meaningful response.
All I could glean was that they were apparently parroting similar remarks they had heard elsewhere, without having given much thought to their words. Many of these students had few if any relationships or even interactions with individuals from the groups they were mocking.
These comments troubled for me for a number of reasons. First, they displayed a lack of sensitivity to the idea that all mankind was created “b’tzelem Elokim,” in the divine image of Hashem (Bereishis 1:27). The Rishonim understand this to comprise a variety of elements applicable to all peoples, including the fact that, like Hashem, all humans possess intelligence, have the faculty of judgment, maintain free will, and are capable of spirituality.
In fact, Chazal took great pains to underscore the significance of this concept.
[Rabbi Akiva] used to say, “Privileged is man, for he was created in [Hashem’s] image.” (Avos 3:18) The mishnah here enumerated the privileges of which man was found to be worthy as distinguished from other creatures…. Man was favored by having been created in the image of God…. For by virtue of the godly qualities with which he was endowed at the time of his creation he would do much that is morally and spiritually good. – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Chapters of the Fathers, Feldheim, Jerusalem, 1979
In addition, every sector of humanity is deserving of respect by virtue of the fact that it serves an important role, one that cannot be achieved by any other group. Rav Hirsch, in his commentary to Bereishis 6:10, points out that it was neither by chance nor through paternal “protectzia” that all three sons of Noah were saved from the destruction of the flood. Rather, each one was in possession of unique qualities necessary for the growth and development of humanity, and was thereby independently deserving of survival.
As Rav Hirsch states:
Shem is the conception of the spiritual, mental…. Cham, the glowing, excited…. Yefes expresses the feeling, the imagination which is sensitive to beauty…. We have here the three factors which comprise the whole of the life of our mind. In a healthy life all three phases place themselves under one higher principle…. These pronounced national differences are not to be regarded as degenerations, but that they had already been brought into the ark…. All the different races of men are created for the one lofty ideal of mankind. – The Pentateuch, Volume I, Feldheim, Jerusalem, 1989
In general, the Torah provides us with numerous examples that highlight the importance of positive, respectful speech regarding all of Hashem’s creatures. Consider this: