May 19, 2024
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Parshas Tazria-Metzora: Truly Free Speech

When I was 20 years old I lost my voice for a few weeks. I attributed this to my learning in a large beis midrash filled with hundreds of people speaking in loud voices with their study partners. Talking to a chavrusa for eight, 10 or 12 hours a day can be quite taxing to the vocal cords! I took some voice lessons from a special doctor to help, but it was a Band-Aid solution. Like the moon, my problem waxed and waned.

Six months after I got married, my voice disappeared again, but refused to come back. Imagine being newly married and “talking” just with post-it notes! I became the “silent type” through no fault of my own…for months. This time, I went to the country’s top specialist. He told me I had a very rare condition whose name I still can’t pronounce and whose cause was unknown. Not very comforting!!

A few weeks later, a friend took me to Rav Asher Dovid Freund, who davened for me and gave me a bracha to recover. Indeed, with Hashem’s help, my voice returned and hasn’t left me since. Most certainly, I learned a powerful lesson on the value of words and how little one really needs to say.

Communication in general and speech in particular are core parts of human interaction. Modern technology has increased the speed and breadth of communication available right at our fingertips, but it’s a fragile gift that we shouldn’t take for granted and we certainly shouldn’t abuse. The time period from Pesach to Shavuos is a most propitious time to focus on proper use of speech and, for that matter, our mouths in general. It starts with Seder night, where we use our mouths to tell the story of leaving Mitzrayim and for the other mitzvos as well—eating matzah and maror. We get a hint of this concept in the name Paroh, which has two parts—peh rah—evil mouth. This shows that our enslavement included the subjugation of our speech—our inability to communicate with and pray to Hashem—because of the influence of Egyptian culture. But freedom comes from the mouth also. Pesach is composed of “peh” “sach”—the mouth speaks. Our speech can be subjugated or free; it’s ultimately up to us!

We are now in the period of Sefiras Haomer, counting the days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuos. Our special mitzvah is to count the Omer each day verbally. It’s no coincidence that our Torah portions talk about the dangers of bad speech—lashon hara. Just as we need to make sure that what goes into our mouths is kosher, so too must we be careful that what comes out is equally “kosher.” Tazria and Metzora elaborate on the affliction of tzara’as for someone speaking lashon hara. It’s not an affliction we have today, but the Sfas Emes explains that the word tzara’as has the same Hebrew letters as atzeres, which means holiday or gathering. A holiday is a time to gather and unite with Hashem. The fact that the letters can be rearranged into a detrimental meaning indicates that using speech improperly transforms a uniting experience into one that causes division and strife. Indeed, says Rashi, this is why the Metzora (one afflicted with tzara’as) is banished from the camp. Let’s face it: a Metzora is a negative person.

The word the Torah uses to describe tzara’as is nega (affliction), which contains the same Hebrew letters as oneg—delight. The message is that derogatory speech removes the oneg—delight—from life and replaces it with affliction. Rav Yisroel Simcha Schorr explains further that the quality of negativity was part of our Mitzrayim experience, our time of slavery. We can use this time period of the Omer to free us from negativity.

Every day in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer we beseech Hashem to save our tongue from evil speech—n’tzor l’shoni mera. It can damage not only us, but everyone around us. Negativity becomes a mindset that pulls everybody down! Let us count up to Shavuos, free ourselves from the vestige of this bondage of negative thinking and speech, and replace the slavery and isolation of negativity with achdus—uniting together. On Shavuos we can replace the negative with Torah, which binds us together and sweetens our paths.

By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a multi-level Gemara learning program. Recently he has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis midrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in Livingston and Springfield. This year he joined Heichal Hatorah in Teaneck as a Gemara iyun rebbe. His email is [email protected].

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