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Positive Versus Negative Speech

Mar 31, 2011

Parshat Tazria focuses mainly on tzaraat, a punishment for one of seven aveirot listed in the Gemara - the most well-known of them is loshon hara.   Immediately following the Torah's commandment of "beware of a tzaraat affliction to be very careful and to act" (Devarim 24:8), we are told "remember what Hashem your G-d did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt" (ibid. 8).  There is a debate among the Rishonim whether or not remembering this incident is a Mitzvat Asei (positive commandment).  The Rambam did not include this in his list of positive commandments.  It appears that Rashi as well did not view this remembrance as a Mitzvat Asei - "if you wish to take care that you not be stricken with tzaraat do not speak loshon hara, remember what was done to Miriam who spoke against her brother Moshe and was stricken with afflictions of tzaraat" (Rashi's commentary to Devarim 24:9).  Rashi is implying here that this is not a positive commandment, rather the Torah is offering us sound advice on how we should protect ourselves from speaking loshon hara - if you wish to protect yourself from being afflicted with tzaraat, remember what happened to Miriam and then you will guard your tongue and thus not be afflicted.  The Ramban, on the other hand, lists this remembrance among the positive mitzvoth "we are commanded to verbally remember to take to heart what Hashem did to Miriam when she spoke of her brother, despite her being a prophetess, as a means of distancing ourselves from speaking loshon hara" (Ramban's appendix to the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot - Mitzvah 7).

We find in the Gemara: "Rav Chama beRebbi Chanina said: 'what is the remedy for speakers of loshon hara?  If he is a Torah scholar he should engage in the study of Torah, as it says: 'the cure of a tongue is the Tree of Life' (Mishle15:4).  Tongue is none other than loshon hara ... and the Tree of Life is none other than the Torah as it says: 'it is a Tree of Life to those who grasp it' (Mishle 3:18), if he is an ignoramus he should humble his attitude" (Erchin 15b).  There is a dissenting view in the Gemara: "R' Acha the son of R' Chanina said: if he has already spoken loshon hara he has no remedy ... rather what is a person's remedy to avoid engaging in loshon hara?  If he is a Torah scholar he should engage in the study of Torah and if he is an ignoramus he should humble his attitude" (ibid.)

Each of the above opinions states the importance of Torah study to offset loshon hara, they differ on whether it can serve as a cure for one who has already violated this prohibition or is it only a preventative measure.   The Torah describes the creation of Adam HaRishon: "vayehi haadam lenefesh chaya" "man became a living being" (Bereishis 2:7).  Onkelos interprets "a living being" as "leadam memalela" - a being which speaks.  What makes man different from other elements of the creation is his ability to talk.  A person who misuses the gift of speech has not only lost the advantage he has of being a human being, but has descended even lower than an animal - animals do not speak loshon hara.

We have spoken about using speech in a way prohibited by the Torah, one of the ways in which we can use our speech for mitzvoth is relating the story of the exodus from Egypt - sippur yetziat Mitzrayim.  Although it is important that we read the text of the Haggadah, we may and are encouraged to add and elaborate on the story of yetzias Mitzrayim, as we say in the Haggadah: "kol hamarbe lesaper biYetziat Mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach" "the more one relates the story of the exodus, the more praiseworthy is he".  It is important to keep in mind that elaborating does not mean pilpulim and chiddushim on the wording of the Haggadah.  It may be true that gedolei Torah have written such commentary on the Haggadah, but we must keep in mind that they did not write it during their Seder.

Our Pesach Seder should be relating to ourselves and those with us about what took place in Egypt, just how bad the situation was, what Pharaoh did to us, and the great miracles which took place in Egypt including the ten plagues.  This is relating the story of the exodus from Egypt.  What makes the person praiseworthy?  The simple explanation is that elaborating on the story of the exodus is an act which is praiseworthy.  Elaborating on the story of the exodus is a praiseworthy act and fulfilling the mitzvah in a more mehudar fashion.

There is, however, an additional interpretation for "the more one dwells on the story of the exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy is he".  One who spends more time and energy relating the story of the exodus has shown us that HE is a praiseworthy person. The pasuk states: "A refining pot is for silver and a crucible for gold, and a man according to his praises" (Mishle 27:21).  In other words, a refining pot is used to ascertain the level of impurities in silver, while a crucible will uncover the same with gold.  What about a human being, how do we determine how pure he is?  The pasuk teaches us "and a man according to his praises". Man's level is determined by what he praises.  If he spends his time praising Talmidei Chachamim or great baalei mussar, then he is a praiseworthy and valuable person.  On the other hand, if he praises football players, movie stars, or gangsters, then we know where his head and heart are.  Therefore, one who spends more time relating the story of the exodus has shown HIMSELF to be praiseworthy - he has shown that what interests him is cleaving to Hashem and not to trivialities.   If he spends the whole evening discussing the victory of "Beitar Yerushalayim" then he has shown that his head is in football - such a person is not praiseworthy.  If, however, his head and his heart are in relating the story of the exodus, then he has shown that his head and his heart are where they should be and they are not filled with nonsense.

In Egypt our suffering was not only physical but spiritual as well.  The Jewish nation sank to the forty-ninth level of impurity and had Hashem not removed us precisely when He did, it would have been impossible to remove us from there.   We state in the Haggadah: "This matzah, why do we eat it: to commemorate the fact that there was insufficient time for the dough of our forefathers to leaven, until the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed is He revealed Himself to them and redeemed them".  One explanation is that this refers not only to the physical dough which did not have sufficient time to rise when they were expelled from Egypt, but to the spiritual dough (the soul of the Jewish people) which was about to leaven and it would have spoiled to a point of no return. They were saved at the eleventh hour because Hashem rushed them out of Egypt before they had the chance to sink to a level of impurity from which they would be unable to emerge.  They were so close to being completely immersed in Egyptian impurity that had they delayed for even one moment, there would have been no redemption.  As the Rambam writes "It almost came to pass that the great tree that Avraham Avinu had planted was uprooted and the sons of Yaakov would have returned to their wanderings and aimlessness and the errors of the world ..." (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3).

There were certainly several tzaddikim at that time such as Aharon HaKohen and Yehoshua bin Nun, furthermore Chazal teach us that a large part of the Jewish nation had died in Egypt.  Out of those who remained, a significant amount was on the verge of assimilation in Egypt.

Hashem bestowed mankind with the power of speech and the Jewish nation in particular with a sanctified language.  The sanctity of this language is seen from the fact that all the prophets prophesied in it. The fact that our language is holier than all others does not protect it from becoming defiled by negative things. Whatever tongue one speaks in can be used for good as well as for evil. The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishnayot of Masechet Avot mentions that there are individuals who think that if one writes a song in loshon hakodesh, then it is praiseworthy regardless of its content, whereas if it is written in some other language it is not at all praiseworthy even if the content is holy. The Rambam refutes this supposition and states that if the song contains wisdom and holy matters, then no matter what language it is written in it is praiseworthy (obviously it is preferable to be written in loshon hakodesh). On the other hand, a song containing nonsense, no matter what language it is written in, is not worthy of any praise. Writing such nonsense in loshon hakodesh does not elevate the song, but rather degrades our holy tongue. (He is not advocating writing nonsense in other languages - he simply states that if one writes nonsense, it is a worse offense if it is in loshon hakodesh). The people the Rambam refers to are technically using loshon hakodesh but without the inner spirituality that should accompany it. Loshon hakodesh elevates something and imbues it with sanctity, but it has to be something worthy to begin with.

In last week's Parsha we read which animals, fowl, and fish we may and may not eat.  What we eat can have a positive influence or G-d forbid, a negative one.  In short, in Parshat Shmini we learned what may not enter our mouths.  In Tazria we learn what may not come out from our mouths.  Eating improper foods can have a negative influence on our Torah observance, but speaking improperly can also negatively influence our ability to learn, its effect is probably more severe.  Our holy mouths should not be used for anything that is not holy.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (see Brachot 1:2) quotes a statement by R' Shimon bar Yochai that had he lived during the period of Matan Torah, he would have asked Hashem to grant each person two mouths.  What would man do with two mouths?  One would be used for learning Torah, while the other for less spiritual and more worldly matters.  Man, after all has to eat as well as at times discuss other matters.  It would be more appropriate for one mouth to be designated exclusively for Torah study while the other would be used for other needs.

Why should one have separate mouths for holy and profane needs?   Because if the mouth used for Torah were also used for other matters, it would not have the same sanctity as a mouth used exclusively for Torah study.  Although Baruch Hashem, we are a holy nation, nevertheless the mouth that learns Torah is not on the level desired by R' Shimon bar Yochai.

Why did R' Shimon bar Yochai desire that the mouth we use for Torah to have a higher level of sanctity?  Because the holier the mouth that spouts forth words of Torah, the more elevated that Torah is.  We have only one mouth with which to do everything, but at least we should keep it as clean as possible from loshon hara, machloket and other bad words, we should keep it as holy as possible, this we can learn from Rav Shimon bar Yochai.

One would never accuse R' Shimon bar Yochai of speaking idly, but perhaps there were times in which he had to involve his mouth in worldly matters such as eating and drinking.  R' Shimon bar Yochai's eating carob and drinking water can be described as the "holy of holies", yet he wished that his mouth that brought forth words of Torah be clean of anything that he considered unholy.  It was only later on (perhaps resulting from his having spent many years sitting in a cave due to the loshon hara the Romans spoke of him), that he retracted what he had said claiming that it is better man be left with only one mouth.  If the world cannot survive due to the loshon hara spoken from one mouth, imagine how much loshon hara would come forth from two mouths?  Today, unfortunately we have far more than two mouths speaking loshon hara - we have our telephone, radio and many other vehicles - we must be extra careful.  We are at times guilty of loshon hara, but we must do our best to minimize violation of this severe sin.

There is another area which deems man superior to animals and that is the brain.  Just as we mentioned that we should be careful to use our power of speech for good things, we should be careful to use our brain for good and not evil.  We read in Megillas Esther that Mordechai remained outside the palace of the king: "for it was forbidden to enter the king's gate in a garment of sackcloth" (Esther 4:2).  We certainly should not approach the King of kings with an impure mind and heart.  If we wish for the King to dwell in our midst then our mouths as well as our minds must be pure from anything negative.

Pesach is a Yom Tov in which we are required to rejoice.  The rejoicing should focus of joy for having left Egypt and of becoming servants of Hashem.  We mentioned that Yetziat Mitzrayim brought us eternal freedom, and we recite nightly in the brachot of Kriat Shma: "Who struck with His anger at the firstborn of Egypt and removed His nation from their midst to eternal freedom".  In what way did we emerge from the bondage of Egypt to eternal freedom?  Hashem took us out of the bondage of Pharaoh and took us in as His servants (lehavdil)!  This implies that being a servant of Hashem is in fact "eternal freedom".

In what way is a servant of Hashem "free"?   Is this freedom?  Being enslaved to Hashem places many more demands on man than being a slave to Pharaoh.  We were only slaves to Pharaoh for six days a week (see Shmot Rabba 1:28), and we were given some semblance of freedom at night in order to sleep (ibid. 12).  One who serves Hashem is His servant day and night - twenty-four hours a day, seven days week he is subject to the laws of the Torah!  Halacha dictates how he must sleep at night (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim siman 239), how he must arise in the morning (see ibid. siman 1), how he must wash his hands (ibid. siman 4), how he must get dressed (ibid. siman 2), how and what he must eat, and much much more.  It is true that after all is said and done, it is far better to be a servant of Hashem than a servant of Pharaoh, but why is this referred to as "eternal freedom"?

The explanation is as follows: what is the true difference between a slave and a free man?  A slave is subordinate to the will of his master. Even if the master is kind and considerate and does not overburden the slave with hard labor the way Pharaoh did, in the final analysis it is the master who determines the course of the slave's life, not the slave himself.  A free man, on the other hand, dictates his own path in life, he does as he wishes and is not subjugated to the wishes of anyone else. 

How much more is this true when speaking of Pharaoh whose main desire was to kill us, while Hashem wishes to give us life - in this world and the Next World.  Serving Hashem is a fulfillment of our true desire - our soul wants to follow the ways of Hashem.  We do not know how to express this, so we needed Moshe Rabenu to bring the Torah down for us.  Our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were able to keep the Torah even without the benefit of Moshe Rabenu.  Our true desire is to serve Hashem and therefore being His servants is true eternal freedom.  Our soul, after much battle, descended to this world from heaven and wants to return (hopefully after a long life here) pure and clean the way it came. Being slaves to Hashem means being slaves to the G-d who wants to help us and to do the best things for us.  He gives us so much to help us, to make us fine people ourselvres.  We should therefore be glad that we left being slaves of Pharaoh and went to being slaves of Hashem. 

R' Yehuda HaLevi said: "Slaves to their time - are truly enslaved, a slave to Hashem - he alone is free." There are those who are servants to their own time and their own nonsense.  These are slaves - a servant of Hashem is a free man because a free man does as he wishes and a person's true desire is to serve Hashem for this is the innermost desire of his soul.  It is for this that we must be thankful for having been taken out of Egypt.

In our Yom Tov davening we recite: "bestow upon us, O Hashem, our G-d, the blessing of Your appointed Festivals for life and for peace, for gladness and for joy, as You desired and promised to bless us". When did Hashem promise to bless us during the Yom Tov?  We mentioned before, that if we fulfill "you shall rejoice on your festival", then Hashem promises us: "and you will be completely joyous".  Would anyone think that our desire for "life and peace" be limited to the Yom Tov?  Surely we wish to live the entire year and not die at the conclusion of the Yom Tov! 

The same applies to the rest of the sentence.  The gladness and joy we ask for is by the same token not limited to the festival, but rather for the entire year.  We obviously are not asking for the meat and wine we have on the Yom Tov to necessarily be with us the rest of the year.  What we do wish is the joy the results from cleaving to Hashem.  We recite on Yom Tov: "may Israel the sanctifiers of Your holiness rejoice in You", we do not say that they should rejoice in meat and wine.  Similarly, in

Hallel we recite: "This is the day Hashem has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Tehillim 118:24).  The joy and gladness is in Hashem.  The meat and wine is to insure that our physical hunger does not interfere with our true joy.  If one is hungry it is difficult to properly rejoice, we thus must feed our bodies with what makes them happy.  Similarly, on Yom Tov Hashem permitted "melechet ochel nefesh" - acts of preparing of food that are prohibited on Shabbat. One is permitted to cook on Yom Tov in order that he not feel bad that he did not prepare any delicacies for the Yom Tov.  The food, however, is not the main purpose of the Yom Tov festivities.  We must rejoice in Hashem and in the Torah

On Pesach we are celebrating, among other things, our being removed from the sorcery and all the nonsense of Egypt hand having been brought close to Hashem and His Torah. 

When discussing the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the Torah writes: "vesamachta bechagecha ... vehayita ach same-ach" "you shall rejoice on your festival ... and you will be completely joyous" (Devarim 16:14-15).  Many interpretations have been offered for this pasuk.  One explanation is that one who properly rejoices on Yom Tov will feel joy the entire year.  When our Yom Tov joy means coming closer to Hashem through davening, learning, and helping others rejoice then the joy will remain with us not only throughout the particular festival but throughout the entire year.  

The Yerushalmi asks whether one may use wine of the Seventh Year (Shviit) to fulfill the mitzvah of drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder.  Why would this not constitute a fulfillment of the mitzvah?  Perhaps we can suggest the following explanation.  We drink four cups of wine to symbolize our freedom, to symbolize that no one can dictate to us whether we must drink our wine before, during, or after the meal.  We are rejoicing at no longer being under the servitude of Pharaoh.  The Shmitta has the opposite message - we have nothing of our own because everything belongs to Hashem.  In the ways of the poor, we eat only that which is found in the field.  While on Shmitta we should act as if we are poor, at the Seder we convey the message that we are wealthy.  This, I believe is the Yerushalmi's dilemma - using Shviit wine for the four cups brings mixed messages which perhaps do not belong together. The Yerushalmi concludes that one may in fact use Shmitta wine for the four cups of wine because we may feel free and wealthy for no longer being slaves to Pharaoh, but when compared to Hashem we have nothing.  These two ideas are not a contradiction.

We mentioned above that we attained eternal freedom upon leaving Egypt because we are now able to fulfill the desire and needs of our soul.  Our needs living in this world and our yetzer hara.  True freedom is learning Torah and performing mitzvos for this is what our soul truly wants - to be enslaved to Hashem.    We left the gashmiyut and avoda zara of Egypt in order to become servants of Hashem.  May we soon merit the even greater joy of being able to offer the Korban Pesach speedily in our day. Amen.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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