Quarantine used to be a lot worse.
The Torah describes a unique consequence for one who speaks lashon ha’ra: tzaraas and a lonely quarantine outside the Jewish camp (with no toilet paper, of course). Rashi (VaYikra 13:46) writes that this is a fitting punishment: He drove people apart with his hurtful words, now let him sit alone, separated from others.
Rav Eli Baruch Shulman shlita offered another insight into the significance of the m’tzora’s isolation. Often, a person is motivated to speak badly of friends, family, or coworkers due to feelings of inferiority. When comparing himself to others, he feels that he comes up short, and so he insults, criticizes, and bad-mouths them to ensure that they are not seen as better than him. Such a person puts too much emphasis on the success of those around him, and believes that self-worth is measured in relation to the abilities of others. Additionally, he thinks that self-esteem is defined by the perceptions and opinions of others. If he can get others to believe that his “competitor” is terrible and that he is superior, then that will become the reality.
The only remedy for the baal lashon ha’ra is to distance himself from all people for a period of time. He has demonstrated that he feels inadequate among others, and lacks the understanding that human beings have inherent worth, independent of anyone else’s success or judgments. The goal is that a week of introspection, removed from society, will give him a chance to begin developing self-esteem that comes from within – not from the standing of others, nor from their evaluations. By the time he is ready to reintegrate into the community, hopefully he will have learned that he does not need to speak ill of others in order to feel good about himself.
While we no longer exile a person for speaking lashon ha’ra, the underlying lesson remains true. How much of our gossip and belittling of others is rooted in our own insecurities? In the age of social media, there has been a tremendous proliferation of two things: lashon ha’ra and feelings of inferiority when viewing the posts of others. Are the two connected?
Perhaps some self-imposed introspection in isolation is in order.