The punishment of tzara’as is the result of the sin of slander and gossip. We all know the famous pasuk in Tehillim, “Mi ha’ish hachoftez hachaim.. netzor leshoncha me’ra… sur me’ra v’aseh tov…” David haMelech tells us that if you want long life all you have to do is guard your tongue from evil speech, avoid doing wrong, and do good. (Simple, right?) If we look carefully at the formula the pasuk provides, it seems that the entire first half is redundant. “Sur me’ra v’aseh tov…” seems to cover it all; it encapsulates kol haTorah kula, the whole shulchan aruch of what it means to be a Jew. So why did David haMelech add as a preface “netzor lishoncha me’ra?” Isn’t guarding one’s tongue included already in the idea of “sur me’ra v’aseh tov?”
Yesterday we discussed the idea that there are certain meta-values and principles that define the essence of Judaism. These particular mitzvos, midos, principles, are not just one more idea among 613 equals, but are umbrellas that encompass the whole system; they are far greater than any one individual part of halacha and even of all the parts combined. R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz explained that even though Ya’akov Avinu kept the entire Torah, all tarya”g mitzvos, in Lavan’s home, he still was nervous that he would not merit Hashem’s protection against Eisav because one can keep kol haTorah kula and still be on the wrong path entirely by missing if one ignores the meta-values.
Explains the Shem m’Shmuel, this is the great chiddush David haMelech wanted to teach us. “Sur me’ra v’aseh tov” covers the entire shulchan aruch, but even if you have the whole sulchan aruch in your back pocket, if you are missing the preface, the glue that keeps the whole system together, then you are missing everything. Even if you know kol haTorah kula and keep kol haTorah kula, if your speech is improper, if you are a gossip, if you can’t control what you say and how you say it, then everything else is tainted as well. “Netzor leshoncha me’ra” transcends the “sur me’ra v’aseh tov;” it is the meta-value that gives character to the system as a whole.
With this we can appreciate the meaning of a famous story brought in the Midrash. Rav Yanai met a peddler who was hawking a promise of long life. Rav Yanai was curious as to what this magic elixir might be, so he followed the peddler around, When a crowd gathered, the peddler finally revealed what his secret “product” was. He quoted this pasuk in Tehillim, “Mi ha’ish hachoftez hachaim.. netzor leshoncha me’ra… sur me’ra v’aseh tov…” Rav Yanai remarked that he had never understood this pasuk properly until he heard it from the peddler. What did Rav Yanai find so remarkable in the peddler’s presentation? Surely Rav Yanai had been familiar with this pasuk beforehand?!
The Shem m’Shmuel explains that what caught Rav Yanai’s attention was the peddler’s use of the word “sam,” literally, a spice. You can’t make a meal of spices alone, but any regular meal served without spice is bland and not satisfying. “Netzor leshoncha,” guarding against lashon ha’ra, is not just another dish on the menu of Torah, item number whatever of 613 possible choices. It’s the spice that goes into every dish that makes every dish more satisfying. It’s a defining value of the system as a whole.