Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu gives over directions and guidance for the Bnei Yisrael as they prepare to enter Eretz Yisrael without him. Parshas Ki Seitzei includes many laws dealing with personal relationships, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. There are also many laws dealing with interpersonal relationships such as kidnapping, runaway servants, personal hygiene, and our topic this week, Lashon Hara.
While we don’t need the Torah to tell us that a culture that engages in gossip or worse is not good for anyone, in Judaism, it’s actually the law that you are not allowed to speak bad about someone else. (There are of course circumstances where it would be necessary to say something unflattering about someone else, but those cases are certainly not the majority and definitely don’t include simple gossip.) Amazingly, one of the ironclad laws that we are required to follow from the Torah prohibits gossip. Can you imagine a culture where you were actually punished for gossip by the law? That’s what we have.
It is a well-known idea that the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzara’as, a sickness similar to leprosy except that it is completely controlled by your spiritual state of being. Getting and recovering from tzara’as has nothing to do with bacteria, it is completely determined by your evil speech and subsequent repentance for it. The Torah discusses at length in various places the laws of what you should do when you have tzara’as, and Moshe reminds Bnei Yisrael in our parsha to follow those laws (See Devarim 24:8).
He then follows it up with what seems like a warning, but actually says even more. “זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֧ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְמִרְיָ֑ם בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם” “Remember that which Hashem, your God, did to Miriam, when you left Egypt” (9). If we look back in Parshas Beha’aloscha, we have the story of when Miriam got tzara’as for speaking ill of Moshe (See Bamidbar 12). Honestly, what she said wasn’t even that bad, it may not even have been lashon hara! Chazal teach us that since she was one of the greatest people of the generation, Miriam was held to a higher standard. Therefore, she got tzara’as for something which for someone else may have been overlooked. For the rest of the nation though, it was an important event; even the leaders of the generation were not exempt from anything. If Miriam could get tzara’as, anyone could. On a simple level, this is what Moshe is reminding the people by mentioning this here.
The Ramban takes this idea a little further. The use of the word ‘zachor’ here in the pasuk is intriguing. While the simple translation of this word is to ‘remember’, there are many instances where the Torah uses it to mean something more. For example, the Aseres Hadibros famously say, “זָכוֹר֩ אֶת־י֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֜ת לְקַדְּשׁ֗וֹ” “Remember the day of Sabbath to make it holy” (Shemos 20:8); later on in this week’s parsha, we are given the famous edict to wipe out Amalek which begins with, “זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק” “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Devarim 25:17). These examples are not just reminders that we should keep Shabbos or wipe out Amalek, they are actual commandments to do so! The Ramban explains that this example of Miriam is also not meant as a reminder not to speak Lashon Hara, but an actual commandment not to.
What exactly is the framework of this type of commandment? The actual wording of the Torah says to remember, seems simple enough. But if the Ramban is correct that it actually means not just to remember but to actually do it, then our understanding of the word ‘zachor’, and consequently, the meaning of this commandment, is not completely clear.
The Ramban looks back at our example of Shabbos. While the first reading of the Aseres Hadibros in Sefer Shemos says “זָכוֹר֩ אֶת־י֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֜ת”, the second reading, found earlier in Sefer Devarim reads, “שָׁמ֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑וֹ” “Keep the day of Sabbath and make it holy” (Devarim 5:12). Shamor means to actually keep the mitzvah, what does zachor add to this? The Ramban explains that shamor means that you are keeping the mitzvah in your soul and in your actions, while zachor means that it’s something always being mentioned.
One of the truest statements in life is actions speak louder than words. If you do what you are supposed to do in the proper manner, you are on the path to a good life. But even doing proper actions does not compare to someone who supplements those actions with words as well. Someone who feels an enthusiasm and passion for what he does will inevitably end up bringing those things up again and again. Whether it’s for others or even just for himself, if it’s something meaningful, it will find its way into his mouth and out into his conversations.
This is the obligation of zachor. Don’t just keep Shabbos, get excited for Shabbos! Don’t just remember what Amalek did, make sure you understand what evil is and why Amalek fits that description, and eradicate that evil from yourself. And don’t just try not to say lashon hara, make an effort to say nice things, promote kindness and acceptance. Even the smallest slights can cause damage, just look at the story of Miriam.
And it’s not just Shabbos where we see zachor and shamor in tandem. Right here by tzara’as we see the same thing. When the pasuk here says to be sure to keep all the laws of tzara’as, the phrasing it uses is, “הִשָּׁ֧מֶר בְּנֶֽגַע־הַצָּרַ֛עַת” “Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzara’as” (24:8). The Shamor root appears here too, reminding us that this obligation is not just about not speaking evil, it’s about being a force for good.