In the beginning of the Torah portion of Metzora, we are told of the “law of the metzora.” Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a), the metzora is someone who has been afflicted by G-d with a semblance of leprosy for performing any of seven sins including lashon hara, derogatory speech. The affliction and the process of atonement that goes along with it is meant to help correct this person’s actions and outlook.
In Rabbi Frand on the Parashah, pp.168-170, R. Yissocher Frand cites an anecdote concerning the famous rosh yeshiva of Etz Chaim in Jerusalem R. Isser Zalman Meltzer (1870 – 1953).
One chol hamoed (intermediary days of Pesach or Sukkot) morning, R. Meltzer was sitting with one of his students discussing various subjects. Suddenly, R. Meltzer asked for a pencil and a piece of paper. Surprised that R. Meltzer would want to write on chol hamoed, an act permitted only under special circumstances, the student thought R. Meltzer may have forgotten that it is chol hamoed. When he reminded his teacher of the fact, R. Meltzer expressed the dire importance of this writing.
After bringing the pencil and paper, the student was amazed to see his teacher write out a quotation from Mishle (4:25), “Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids will straighten your path.” R. Meltzer then put down the pencil. Thoroughly bewildered, the student inquired as to an explanation for the importance of writing out a verse that R. Meltzer already knew by heart and how that could be a matter of such great importance.
R. Meltzer explained that on chol hamoed hundreds of Jews come to visit him, among them many fine and respectable individuals, learned and pious individuals and friends and relatives and also many not so distinguished visitors. The not so distinguished people that come to visit him include all sorts of braggarts, derelicts, fools and lunatics, and R. Meltzer has to greet them all pleasantly, demanding a great deal of patience and kindness. R. Meltzer noted, “Sometimes, I feel my patience being tried sorely. I am tempted to lash out at them with a few well-chosen sharp words. I have to hold myself back. I have to control myself, but I am afraid I will make a mistake and say something I should not say. So I have worked out a system for myself. I write down this verse from Mishle.” R. Meltzer then continued, “I once heard a homiletic interpretation that reads it as saying, ‘When your eyes look at someone else, turn them inward.’ When you see someone else’s flaws and shortcomings, do not focus on him. Focus on yourself. Look at your own shortcomings. You are also far from perfect. This is what I think about at those moments when I am close to losing control. If I would not have the paper there on my desk, staring me in the face, I am afraid I would just lash out. But then I see the paper, and it stops me. I always write this paper out before the holiday, so that it should already be prepared for chol hamoed. This year, I forgot. That is why I have to write it now.”
R. Meltzer was a great man who recognized the struggle involved in refraining from all forms of derogatory speech and he tried hard to avoid such talk.
We should all say to ourselves, “Let your eyes look straight.” As R. Frand points out, there are “two types of people in the world, those who view the glass as half empty and those who view the glass as half full. Those who speak lashon hara always view the glass as half empty; they only see the faults of others, not their virtues. Those who look away from the faults of others take a more positive view of the world; they see the glass as half full. In the long run, these people are the happiest.” If we let our eyes look straight, we often can perceive the good in others that escapes us otherwise. We owe it to others as well as to ourselves.