Emor means “speak,” and Torah portion Emor starts with God commanding Moses to speak to the priests about their special responsibilities and restrictions. Why is the parsha named for the very act of speaking rather than the important Kohanic laws Moses speaks about? One reason is to emphasize the vital importance of speech in Jewish practice. What we say matters and has the power to cause considerable pleasure or pain to others.
“Lashon Hara” (evil tongue) describes a wide variety of forbidden speech and is often used to mean “malicious gossip.” Our Sages teach that “Lashon hara kills three: the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the one who is being spoken about.” Certainly the one who speaks does damage, as does the one who listens rather than walking away or changing the subject. But how does lashon hara hurt the one who is being gossiped about?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that speaking about a person’s negative traits actually reinforces them, even if the person never knows what was said. Perhaps seeing someone in a negative light will cause you to unconsciously treat them in a negative way, and often we live up to others’ expectations of us, whether deliberately or not. Let’s make sure to think before we speak, and assess honestly whether it is necessary and helpful for us to say anything. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my life I have been raised amongst the wise and I have found nothing better for the body than silence.”