09/13/2012 11:42 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Spiritual Leprosy: Are You Afflicted?

The month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar, is a time devoted to looking back on the previous year to examine one's heart and soul. It is a time to ask for forgiveness for mistakes made and making the commitment to not doing them again in the new year. An integral part of the process to make lasting changes is teshuvah.

Teshuvah literally means, "return." At its core, it is a process designed to help you get back into alignment with the Divine; first internally, then externally through actions and words.

In looking back, it isn't always easy to see where we have gone wrong. At times, we need outside help to point out the error of our ways. Some habits are so ingrained, or we are simply unconscious to the harm our actions and words create, that the only way to wake up is for someone or something to shake us out of our slumber.

In Torah, leprosy was used as a graphic sign that something was very wrong spiritually and teshuvah was in order. (Note: the conditions mentioned in Leviticus 13-15 do not resemble the disease we now call leprosy.) The Hebrew word for leprosy is tzara'at. It is related to the word that means trouble or affliction. Interestingly, tzara'at not only affected people; it could affect garments and buildings, too.

A famous instance of someone being afflicted by tzara'at was Miriam in Numbers 12:1-12. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had married. As the verses relate, Miriam's punishment was to become white as snow with leprosy. The Midrash teaches that the root cause of this spiritual disease is lashon harah; literally, the evil tongue. Lashon harah is evil speech, characterized by gossip and slander against another.

There are many reasons underlying lashon harah. Some of them are jealousy, anger and domination. Rebellion, a complex action, is another powerful motivation for lashon harah that often results in great harm and destruction.

In a modern context, we are seeing lashon harah used as a primary campaign weapon this election season. It is truly unfortunate that there is no awareness of the spiritual cost of doing so for the individuals who engage in it and for its impact on national consciousness.

As God's reactions to Miriam and Aaron's words against Moses illustrate, the ultimate recipient of lashon harah is God; insulting Moses was tantamount to insulting God. When we wrong people through words, whether in person or not, we disregard that they are loved and valued by God the same as us. Through lashon harah, we are creating a serious fault line with our own relationship to the Divine.

The biblical laws around leprosy no longer apply (meaning, you won't have any luck finding tzara'at in your neighborhood). But we are still afflicted by this serious spiritual disease. Fortunately, life usually has a way of providing us with all the signs we need to see that something is very wrong in our alignment with truth. A prime requirement for taking advantage of the wake up calls we receive is the desire to be a person of integrity and honor, to renounce our errors and forge a new path toward wholeness and cooperation. With this spirit, teshuvah is a powerful way to move forward.

The medieval rabbi and sage Maimonides created a guide for us to do teshuvah (it is known as his Laws of Repentance). It consists of six steps that lead us out of the dark and difficult places lashon harah and other harmful acts cause.

First, we need to recognize our errors and feel regret for them. One needs to be especially careful not to rationalize away or create justifications for them. To be effective, the first step must be a matter of the heart as well as the head. Second, we need to renounce the wrongdoing. This means distancing ourselves in our hearts and minds from it. Third, is confession. The act of confession to the one who has been wronged makes it real. Fourth, is reconciliation. This begins with sincere apology and continues with whatever it takes to heal the hurt. The fifth step is to make amends. This means taking concrete action, whether it is financial compensation, volunteer work or something else. The final step is resolving not to repeat the offense.

We need to rebel against the forces that lead us to lashon harah and other distortions in how we see the world. If we can turn the powerful energies that live inside us around in service to moving closer to God and creating harmony and peace, we will have all the energy we need to get the job done.

It isn't easy to look in the mirror and see our own spiritual leprosy. If you do get a glimpse, don't turn away in disgust or shame. Remember, underlying life is a river of love and compassion. As difficult as it might be to acknowledge what we have done and contemplate making amends, God is rooting for us to return, to be cleansed, to be whole and to start fresh going forward with no looking back.

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