April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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By creation of both human and animal, the verses both state that each received a “living soul.” Rashi (Bereishit 2:7) points out, however, that the living soul mentioned in reference to humans refers to the function of intelligence and the ability to speak. Words are thus an essential aspect of being human. Our Torah portion contains the misdeed known as lashon hara, which tops some of the most egregious transgressions in the Torah. It’s incredible to think about, how just some mere words can be looked upon so severely to the point where it’s on some level equated to immorality, idol worship and even murder (Arachin 15b). The three pillars of our world—Torah, tefillah, and chesed (Pirkei Avot, 1:2)—to a largely significant extent are employed through emanation of words. We speak the words of Torah, we speak words of tefillah, and even chesed; the Gemara says that while one who helps financially is blessed with six blessings, one who appeases him with words is blessed with 11 blessings (Bava Batra 9b). Indeed, while lashon hara, which is speech related, is equal to what is known as the three “worst” transgressions, positive speech is part and parcel of what are known as the three “best” mitzvot.”

The Torah demonstrates how it itself goes out of its way to ensure a nobility in speech. In the Gemara (Pesachim 3a) R’ Yehoshua ben Levi says, “A person should never speak demeaningly, for the Torah ‘distorted’ one of its verses by adding in eight letters, rather than expressing its content in a crude way: Instead of saying ‘impure,’ the Torah said ‘it is not pure.’” Then Rav Pappa there brings another pasuk that also bent over backward and added nine letters to avoid a negative connotation. The Gemara there continues in a similar fashion bringing a couple other examples. We see how far the Torah “speaks” in avoidance of that which may be imparting dergaratory speech, instead choosing that which is more positive.

Such a concept is so enlightening, that the Tanna of the first mishna in Pesachim (to which the aforementioned Gemara is expounding upon) even avoided using the word “night,” since darkness also carries a somewhat negative undertone. Indeed, positive speech is the persona of how our Sages led their lives. The Orchot Tzaddikim (Shaar Lashon Hara) brings a story of a man and a sage who chanced upon an animal corpse along their walk. The man said, “How smelly is this corpse!” Whereas the sage responded, “How white are its teeth!” and then reprimanded the man, saying, “Why do you speak in the negative when you can speak in the positive?” The Gemara (Makkot 24) brings the famous story of Rabbi Akiva and other Sages who came upon the ruins of the Beit Hamikdash, and whereas the other Sages spoke with mourning, R’ Akiva however spoke optimistically about the inevitable future salvation, thus bringing light and hope into an otherwise utterly dark moment.

Our Torah portion speaks about a nega found upon one’s house, and whom this householder comes to the kohen and says, “It appears to me that something like a nega has been found on my house.” The Mishnah (Negaim 12:5) comments that even if this householder is a Torah scholar and knows for certain that it’s a nega, he still should tell the kohen in the aforementioned indefinite terminology. Why? Perhaps we can say that it’s teaching us to not be so haste to declare an unfortunate situation. When possible, do as much as possible to avoid speaking in the direct negative. Even more so is this message being emphasized perhaps to the potential metzora who may have spoken lashon hara and is currently coming to the kohen.

When the lashon hara speaker becomes confirmed to have tzaraat, he begins a process of isolation from the rest of the Jewish nation, and the pasuk says וְטָמֵ֥א | טָמֵ֖א יִקְרָֽא—“impure, impure! should he proclaim.” Rashi explains that this proclamation is in order to make people aware to stay away from him. The Shelah, however, says the pasuk can be understood not simply as a proclamation but also as providing us with background information as to why he spoke lashon hara in the first place. The Shelah explains, and the one who is “tamei,” “will call [another person] tamei.” As the Gemara (Kiddushin, 70) says, “One who disqualifies [another person] indicates he has that same disqualification.” Hence, speech, the essential facet of a human being, is not necessarily a robotic activity, but rather a manifestation stemming from deeper-rooted sources in the essence of a person. As the Orchot Tzaddikim (Sha’ar Lashon Hara) says, “All people are perceived and recognized through their words.”

When Yaakov came in disguise to take the brachot, Yitzchak [suspiciously] said, the “Voice is Yaakov’s,” for Yaakov said “please” to his father, and thus caused Yitzchak to wonder as this wasn’t the politeness with which Eisav spoke (see Rashi, Bereishit 27:22). How could it be that Eisav spoke crudely to his father, when we know (Bereishit Rabba 65:16) that even R’ Shimon ben Gamliel who exemplified “par excellence” in honoring his father declared that even he didn’t even reach one percent of the honor that Eisav accorded to his father!? R’ Henoch Leibowitz explains based on the Chovot Halevavot who says that “the tongue is the pen of the heart and the messenger of the mind.” In other words, speech is directly connected to one’s heart and mind—the faculties that determine our inner self. Esav’s external actions toward his father was one thing. However, since his insides were corrupt, as a result his speech was also improper.

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:8) points out that our language, “lashon hakodesh,” is “kodesh” because of its attribute of speaking in a clean fashion [as he brings a few examples]. R’ Yerucham Levovitz (Daat Torah, Tazria) therefore says that through speaking “b’kedusha” one attains fulfillment of “and you shall be holy,” which is stated in next week’s parsha. Hence, while lashon hara is a perversion of our essential feature as a human being, speaking in a dignified way—in our “mother tongue”—may not only restore and build our character to one of kedusha, but being diligent in proper speech can ultimately come to change our essence so that the upstanding words we speak reflects upon the nobility of who we are.


Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected].

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