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Torah Attitude: Parashas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim: Guarding our mouths from contamination
Not everyone who studies and prays will have the ability to bring an abundance of blessings down upon the world. If we damage our mouths by slandering our fellow beings, tell lies and make fun of others, we lose our power when we pray and study Torah. Before one studies Torah, one should spend a few moments to strengthen one’s fear of G’d and repent so that one’s Torah study will be pure and holy. The person afflicted with tzaraas is not able to achieve his recovery with his own prayer. Before we can work on the 48 things needed to acquire Torah, we must guard ourselves against contaminating our mouths. We are all teachers and educators. One of the 48 things needed to acquire Torah is the ability to learn with the intent of teaching. The second thing needed to acquire Torah is to listen with one’s ear. G’d mentions the death of Aaron’s sons in connection with instructing Aaron not to enter the Holy of the Holies. If we want to be effective in instructing Torah, it is not sufficient to relate the law by itself.
Skilled artisan’s vessel
Towards the end of last week’s Torah Attitude, we quoted Rabbi Aaron Kotler who said that when one prays and studies Torah one brings an abundance of blessings down upon the world. The Chofetz Chaim elaborates on this and explains that not everyone who studies and prays will have the ability to bring these blessings about. He compares this to an artisan who is employed to produce vessels. Even the most talented and skilled artisan will not be able to make his vessels unless he is equipped with the right tools. And once he has his tools, he must make sure that they are in good condition. If his knives are blunt and his tongs are crooked, the vessels he produces will be of inferior quality or have very little value.
Mouth contaminates Torah and prayer
Says the Chofetz Chaim, the tool we use for Torah study and prayer is our mouth. Therefore, we must make sure that our mouths are in perfect condition. If we damage our mouths by slandering our fellow beings, or tell lies and make fun of others, we lose our power when we pray and study Torah. Only when we rectify our wrongdoings and change our ways, will we regain our ability to open the Heavenly gates for Divine blessings. The Chofetz Chaim quotes from the Zohar (Parashas Pekudei) where it says that when a person sins with his mouth he creates a spiritual impurity that will contaminate the holy words of Torah study and prayer that he utters later. Who knows how many of our prayers go unanswered due to the contamination we brought upon ourselves before praying? This does not mean that we should stop praying. The Kabbalists explain that no prayer or Torah study is in vain. However, the power of prayer and the power of the Torah study will not be effective until one repents. But then, all the past prayers and Torah study will be able to ascend and have the desired effect.
Repent before Torah study
Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz (Yaaros Devash, Drush 1) writes that we must seek ways how to ensure that our prayers will be accepted by G’d, especially the main prayer of Shemona Esrei. Before starting Shemona Esrei we quote from Tehillim (51:17) and say, “G’d, open my lips so that my mouth can tell your praise.” When we say this verse, says Rabbi Eibeschutz, we should have in mind that G’d has provided us with lips to guard our mouth and tongue so as not to utter words that are prohibited. This is the appropriate time to take a moment and regret our idle talk, and think about how much pain we often cause our fellow beings with our speech. He describes how the angels, who are ready to bring our prayers in front of the Heavenly throne, will laugh at us. We ask for Divine assistance to open our lips in prayer. What did we think the rest of the day when we constantly opened our mouths without guarding what we were saying? If this is on our mind as an introduction to Shemoneh Esrei, we can truly request Divine assistance that our prayers shall be effective. We find a similar concept prior to studying the Torah. In Nefesh HaChaim (4:6), Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner teaches that before one studies Torah, one should spend a few moments to strengthen one’s fear of G’d and repent so that one’s Torah study will be pure and holy.
Pray for others
In Parashas Tazria (Vayikra 13:45), it says: “And the person with tzaraas … he shall call out ‘contaminated, contaminated’”. The Talmud (Moed Katan 5a) explains that by notifying everybody of his impurity he encourages them to pray for his recovery. The question arises, why does it not mention that he should pray for himself? As the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 53:14) says, “The prayer of a sick person for himself is more powerful than anybody else’s.” I once heard an answer to this question in the name of the Chofetz Chaim. The Talmud (Erechin 15b) teaches that tzaraas comes as a punishment for slandering and other forms of prohibited talk. Therefore, the person afflicted with tzaraas is not able to achieve his recovery with his own prayer. For the tzaraas is just a physical manifestation of the spiritual contamination he has brought upon himself. And till he repents and manages to remove the tzaraas, his own prayer is not effective.
Guard against contamination
This teaches us that before we start working on the 48 things needed to acquire Torah, we must guard ourselves against contaminating our mouths. Only then can we truly proceed to acquire Torah and study it. This will have a double benefit. First of all, our Torah study will be more effective and of a higher quality. Secondly, our prayers will also be more pure and will have much more chance of being answered. In turn it will help us in our Torah study. For we need to pray for Divine assistance to succeed in our study as well. This applies both in regards to our personal study and to our success in teaching others.
We are all teachers
Every day we say many prayers for success in our learning and teaching. In the blessing prior to reciting Shema in the morning we say, “And instill in our hearts to understand and to comprehend, to listen, to learn, and to teach, to keep and to perform, and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah in love.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out that this is a general prayer that every individual is supposed to say. If so, asks Rabbi Feinstein, why do we request assistance to teach? This would seem more appropriate in a special prayer for people who are in the teaching profession? Professionals and merchants who are not teaching, why do they need to ask for this? Rabbi Feinstein answers that the truth is that we are all teachers and educators. Not only do we teach our own children, but we teach each other by our personal example. Every act we do affects the people around us, and influences them in their conduct. We therefore request Divine assistance that we will be good teachers as we show an example for others.
Pass Torah to next generation
This explains why one of the 48 things needed to acquire Torah is the ability to learn with the intent of teaching. We are all a link in the transmission of Torah that started at Mount Sinai. We learn from our teachers and mentors, as well as form the people around us. And in turn we teach our children and students, and influence our surroundings. This is how Torah is passed on from one generation to the next.
Listen with one’s ear
In this context, we must analyze the second thing needed to acquire Torah, to listen with one’s ear. This refers first of all to ourselves, how we must be ready to listen to our rabbis and mentors who teach Torah. But it also includes that we must find ways how to open the ears of our children and students, as well as the people around us that we would like to influence.
Death of Aaron’s sons
In the beginning of Parashas Acharei Mos (the first of this week’s two parshios), it says: “And G’d spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim (1:3) who asks, what is the significance of telling us that this commandment was given after the death of Aaron’s sons? The Toras Kohanim compares this to a sick person who was instructed by a doctor not to eat cold food and not to sleep in a damp place. The patient did not take too much notice to the doctor’s instructions and continued in his old ways. Another doctor came and told him that he better not eat cold food and sleep in a damp place, otherwise he might die like another person did. This did the trick. This, says the Toras Kohanim, is why G’d mentions the death of Aaron’s sons in connection with instructing Aaron not to enter the Holy of the Holies except for the Yom Kippur service. In this way G’d hinted to Aaron that he too would be eligible for capital punishment, if he would enter there unauthorized, just as what happened to his sons.
Effective Torah instruction
This teaches us that when we want to be effective in instructing Torah, it is not sufficient to relate the law by itself. The Torah constantly repeats the consequence of what one does. On the one hand, the Torah reveals how one will be rewarded and blessed when one fulfills the Torah laws. On the other hand, the Torah warns of the calamities that will take place if one transgresses these laws. This is but one example of how to get the attention and open the ears of the listeners, by showing the pattern of reward and punishment in respect to Torah observance. G’d willing we will elaborate next week on how to ensure that we listen to what we are being taught, and in turn that we shall be able to get the concentration and focus of others to listen to us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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