Guarding Our Tongues
Becoming is better than being.
—Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
This week’s parashah discusses tzara’at, a skin disease understood in rabbinic tradition as punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The public castigation that the metzora suffers is a powerful warning for us to “guard our tongues.” It was with words that God created the world, and our words have potential to build, create, and sustain life and human dignity, or to be a source of pain and destruction.
The potential of language extends beyond the specific case of lashon hara. Even praise, it seems, can backfire. Psychologist Carol Dweck investigated what happened when one group of students were commended for their intelligence while another group of students were praised for their effort when completing the same series of learning tasks. Interestingly, when the focus was on the students’ intelligence, they stopped trying—they became risk-averse and their performance suffered. In contrast, students praised for their effort demonstrated greater resilience—they eagerly tackled new academic challenges and their performance improved. Intelligence (and a host of other traits), are not, in fact, fixed—with determination and hard work we can develop these characteristics. We have agency; we have remarkable potential.
Tazria-Metzora contains a cautionary tale—a reminder of the power of language. Dweck’s research arrives at a complementary conclusion: Even when we have good intentions, we need to be wary of our linguistic choices. Our words can be limiting and damaging; they can reinforce our beliefs in fixed abilities and hinder our creative, intellectual, and human potential. Or, instead, our words can affirm our capacity to change, improve, and meet life’s challenges with honesty, ingenuity, and strength.