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The astonishing power of speech.
Although this week's parshiot are largely concerned with matters of human physiology,(1) the Torah is not a medical book; the maladies enumerated in the text are seen through a spiritual lens. Afflictions which appear to be skin deep are related to spiritual failings. One such instance is tzara'at (commonly translated as leprosy), which is associated with speech or, more precisely, the misuse of speech. In a sense, tzara'at is the result of man's failure or inability to manifest the divine image in which he was created.
The world was created via speech.(2) God could have created the world by merely deciding or willing it into existence; instead, He chose to create through an act of speech. When man uses speech properly, he emulates God. When our speech is hurtful or destructive, we not only defile a precious gift with which God endowed us,(3) we call all of creation into question.(4)
The very first being to misuse speech was the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.(5) The Talmudic discussion of the misuse of speech draws an analogy between the slanderer and the Serpent:
Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of "This shall be the law of the leper?" [It means,] 'This shall be the law for him who brings up an evil name'. Further, said Resh Lakish: What is the meaning of the Scriptural verse: "If the serpent bites before it is charmed, then the charmer has no advantage?" (Kohelet 10) - At some future time all the animals will assemble and come to the serpent and say: 'The lion attacks and devours; the wolf tears and consumes; but you, what profit do you have [from your conquest]?' But he will answer: 'What benefit has he who uses his tongue [to speak evil]?' Further said Resh Lakish: "One who slanders makes his sin reach unto heaven, as it is said: 'They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth.' "(Talmud Bavli Erachin 15b)
All other animals attack when hungry or threatened; they kill to eat, to survive. Only humans could make a "sport" of hunting: just as the Serpent of old attacked with words though no benefit was forthcoming, no survival instinct was in play, no tangible gain was to be had other than a massaged ego, so man attacks his fellow man, using words in a destructive, harmful fashion for no real purpose.
The person who misspeaks and is punished with tzara'at is forcibly removed from the community, thrust outside the camp to a place where the masses will be safe from his venom. This extreme punishment, total isolation, indicates that misuse of speech brings about the most extreme type of impurity - even more than the impurity known as the avi avot hatum'ah, the 'father of all impurity', caused by contact with the dead. In the latter case, a person who has become impure is not so isolated; despite this extreme type of impurity, he can be with other people, and is distanced only from the Temple (Mishkan/Mikdash) and not from society.
When words are used properly they can be used to pray, to praise God, and to study Torah. Words can be used to say something encouraging and helpful; they can brighten the day of someone who has become despondent. Words represent the two extremes of human interaction and existence; they can be used for the most lofty or the most destructive purposes.
Closer scrutiny of speech gives us further insight: When God spoke and created the world, not only did He create speech in order to do so; He also created the letters, the building blocks of Creation. There is an obscure mystical book called the Sefer Yetzira (the Book of Creation) which contains a cryptic comment regarding this idea:
Twenty two letters...231 gates... forward and backward, a sign for this is, there is no good higher than oneg, and no evil lower than nega. (Sefer Yetzira 2:7) (6)
The word nega is used several times(7) in this week's parsha in reference to the affliction of tzara'at. The word oneg is associated with the pleasure derived on the holy day of Shabbat.(8) Pointing out that these two terms are inverse of one another, the Kabbalistic view sees Shabbat and tzara'at as polar opposites. Shabbat is a day on which man takes the mundane and elevates it, endowing the most basic elements of human existence with holiness: time, place, physical rest, even the food and drink we consume become the spiritual stuff of oneg Shabbat. On the opposite end of the spectrum is nega, the result of man taking something spiritual, the divine gift of speech that imbues us with godly capabilities, and debasing it.
The divergence of oneg and nega is extreme, complete, yet the words that express these two concepts are so similar that it cannot be more obvious: the letters that comprise these words are the same, only the sequence of the letters differs. We have seen that words can create; these words are formed of letters, but if even one letter is shifted, even slightly, the results can be drastically different, to the point that the natural order can be altered.(9) The power of speech must not be taken lightly; extreme care must be taken to use speech to build, to create, to express the divine spirit within us, rather than using speech destructively and bringing about alienation, isolation, impurity and destruction. Instead of the highest levels of heaven, instead of spiritual delight, instead of oneg, the lowest level of impurity and isolation, described as nega, can be inflicted. The Sfat Emet, based on a teaching in the Zohar,(10) draws a similar parallel, and takes it one step further. Neglecting oneg Shabbat creates a nega, but the converse is also true: a person who creates nega by virtue of misuse of speech is sentenced to isolation, but healing can begin if he creates oneg Shabbat.(11)
The Sfat Emet also observes(12) that the word tzara'at is composed of the same letters as Atzeret:
These are the four forms of afflictions: it is reported in the Holy Zohar that nega is the opposite of oneg as it says there is nothing higher than oneg and nothing lower than nega. And it further says that he who cancels oneg Shabbat turns the oneg into nega. Similarly it says that tzara'at is the opposite of Atzeret...(Sfat Emet, Parshat Tazria 5658)
Seven weeks after their redemption from the contaminated, impure abyss of Egyptian slavery, the Jews stood as one at the foot of Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Torah. This day is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot (known as the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost). The Torah also refers to this festival as Atzeret, literally, Festival of the Assembly. It is important to note that Atzeret is precisely seven full weeks after Pesach, giving this holiday a Shabbat-like personality; in fact, Shavuot, celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh week after the Festival of Freedom, may be seen as a Shabbat of Shabbatot. This aspect is reflected in one of the names of the holiday - Shavuot, the Festival of the Weeks. And yet, the other name for this festival, Atzeret, is comprised of the same letters as tzara'at. This name reflects another significant aspect of the events that occurred at the foot of Mount Sinai - an aspect that is closely related to the subject of our parsha: When the Jews encamped at the mountain we are told that they were unified, "as one man with one heart."(13) The unity achieved at that time and place was a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. At that moment of unity, the community was whole and healthy, free of the impurity of ego, narcissism, self aggrandizement, and devoid of the terrible manifestation of these traits - slander and gossip. It would have been impossible to have attained the lofty spiritual level necessary to enable them to see and hear the Word of God and accept the Torah on Atzeret without first creating this unity by overcoming destructive, divisive traits that bring about the nega tzara'at.
When the Talmud compares the sin of slander and inappropriate speech to the sin of the Serpent, a remedy is offered. There is hope for mankind; an antidote for the venom that runs in our veins was provided for us at the very dawn of Creation: the words of Torah, the study of Torah, the internalization of Torah, can break the charm that the Serpent cast upon us:
R. Hama b. Hanina said: "What is the remedy for slanderers? If he be a scholar, let him engage in the Torah, as it is said: 'The healing for a tongue is the Tree of Life," [Mishlei 15] and 'tongue' here means the evil tongue, as it is said: 'Their tongue is a sharpened arrow' [Mishlei 3], and 'Tree of Life' means only the Torah, as it is said: "She is a Tree of Life, to all that hold on to her. (Talmud Bavli Erachin 15b)
The Serpent was drawn to the "Tree of Death" - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree that would bring death to the world. This Talmudic teaching suggests that the destructive effects of the fruit of this tree can be counteracted by the fruit of the other tree that stood in the center of the Garden - the Tree of Life, Torah. And so, the Festival of Atzeret celebrates the Jews' coming together, achieving unity, abandoning their individual, petty egocentrism and joining together to achieve their greater national destiny: On this day, on Shavuot/Atzeret, they received the Torah, correcting and redeeming the world by clinging to the Word of God, the Tree of Life. Receiving the Torah, accepting and internalizing the Word of God, heals us from the nega of tzara'at, from the deathly effects of ego and selfishness that cause us to misuse the gift of speech.
The division of the weekly Torah readings insures that the chapters dealing with nega tzara'at are generally read in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.(14) This period of seven weeks is counted, day by day and week by week, bridging the period between the festival commemorating our liberation from slavery and the culmination of that liberation on Shavuot. In this period, our ancestors prepared themselves spiritually and physically to receive the Torah, ultimately achieving the unity of purpose and communal harmony described at the foot of Mount Sinai. And yet, the Talmud tells a sad tale of Torah scholars who did not treat one another properly, students who apparently used their words in a hurtful way, students who perished in the period leading up to Atzeret:
It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from G'vat to Antipatris; and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. ...A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Atzeret. (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b)
Discord and disunity prevented them from reaching the holiday of Atzeret. They were unworthy of receiving the Torah, despite being scholars, students of one of the greatest Torah masters in Jewish history. They could not rise above their differences and create the unity that is prerequisite for receiving the Torah. They failed to internalize the message of the Tree of Life; instead, they perished from the fruit of the Tree of Death. The Talmud is very specific regarding their fate:
R. Hama ben Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya ben Abin said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? R. Nahman replied: "Asacara." (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b)
Asacara is a sign of slander. (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 33a)
Rabbi Akiva's students were unable to join together; they were unable to acknowledge one another's greatness, to make room for anyone other than their own egos. This type of behavior stems from feelings of insecurity; only those who feel strong and secure in their own self-worth can recognize and acknowledge greatness in others without feeling threatened. So it was at Sinai: the unity achieved there was an indication of mutual love and respect, born of the very basic understanding that each and every Jew had a unique role to play in their shared destiny. No individual could merit receiving the Torah alone; only together, as a united people, could they attain and cling to the Tree of Life. This was precisely what the students of Rabbi Akiva failed to see, and it is precisely to this lesson that the period between Pesach and Atzeret is devoted. If our aim is to achieve spiritual greatness, we must break through the isolation of individual ego, to bridge the gaps between us, to see the differences between us not as points of division or conflict but as pieces of a multi-colored mosaic that create a harmonious whole. This is the mission of this period, known as Sefirat haOmer (or, more colloquially, "sefira" or "the omer"): to create unity, to merge with others and create a collective.(15)
Rebbe Nachman from Breslov taught that any spiritual achievement - receiving the Torah, building the Mishkan, entering the Land of Israel, creating an elevated society - requires unity and the collective efforts of the masses. The collective spiritual growth that creates Tikun Olam is predicated on the binding together of souls through love, dedication to a common, collective historical consciousness, energized by a common collective vision.(16) Those who misuse speech are thrust out from this collective. Particularly at this time of the year, and at this stage of history, when we must accomplish so much more, we must seek out and recognize the greatness in others - and in ourselves. We must come together with a common goal: to create a world of oneg.(17) Our present world full of pain, suffering, isolation; it is a world of nega. Only by coming together, using our differences to create harmony, to create atzeret, can we stamp out tzara'at.
A little more love can make a huge difference.
1. See "The Holy Hyssop: Tazria Metzorah 5769," Rabbi Ari Kahn: http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2009/04/tazria-metzorah-5769.html.
2. Mishna Avot 5:1.
3. Speech is the quality which distinguishes and elevates man above the other animals. See Rabbenu Bachya, Introduction to Parshat Vayigash; haKtav v'haKabala, Bereishit 12:13.
4. In the words of the Midrash, the slanderer contradicts all Five Books of the Torah: R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: Five times is the word 'torah' used with reference to leprosy: "This is the law of the plague of leprosy" (Vayikra 13, 59); "This shall be the law of the leper" (Vayikra 14, 2); "This is the law of him in whom is the plague of leprosy" (Vayikra 14:32); "This is the law for all manner of plague of leprosy" (Vayikra 14:54); "This is the law of leprosy" (Vayikra 14:57). [Since, as we have seen], "This shall be the law of the leper" means ... of him that utters evil reports,' it [i.e. the five-fold repetition of Torah in this matter] is intended to teach you that if one indulges in calumny, it is as if he transgresses the Five Books of the Torah. For this reason Moshe warned Israel, "This shall be the law of the leper."
5. The Netziv, in Haamek Davar Bereishit 3:1, suggests that the Serpent itself did not speak.
6. See also Zohar Bereishit 26b, Shmot 265b, Tikunei Zohar 58a, and 88b.
7. Vayikra 13:3,9,20,22,25,27,29,31,42,47,49,59; Vayika 14:3,32,54.
8. See Yeshayahu 58:13.
9. The Kuzari, article 4 section 1, points out that emesh ("last night") and asham ("sin offering") are composed of the same letters. The message is that the folly of nocturnal escapades will require a guilt offering in the morning. In Likutei Amarim section 16 we find that keresh, a board used to construct the Mishkan, has the same letters as sheker, falsehood; the Mishkan is built by truth - which can heal our lies and inconsistencies.
10. Tikunei Zohar 58a.
11. See Bnei Yissachar, Maamarei Hashabbatot, maamar 10.
12. The Sfat Emet does not take credit for the teaching; he says "it is said". The only other source I found was the Ben Yohyada Sanhedrin 101b.
13. See Shmot 19:2 and Rashi's comments.
14. In a leap year, these Parshiot may be read before Pesach.
15. The most basic unit of merger is between a man and a woman in marriage. Interestingly, Jewish law curtails marriage during these days of the omer, as a kind of homage to the lamented students of Rabbi Akiva.
16. See Rav Natan, the famed disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, Liqutei Halachot, Laws of the Mincha Prayer, law 7.
17. Rav Natan explains that an attempt to bring about redemption by the Arizal was aborted due to a lack of love. Liqutei Halachot, Laws of Blood, law 1.