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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria/ Parashas HaChodesh, The power of the spoken word
The Torah describes plagues resulting from gossiping, lies, breaking promises and other improper speech. We must be very careful with our powerful words by guarding our tongues. The status of a person afflicted with the plague changes to impure and pure only after a declaration by a kohen. Hopefully, the person learns the lesson of how the spoken word can make or break every part of our existence. The punishment for impurity resulting from improper speech is isolation. Contamination from the sins of the spoken word cause a spiritual impediment. The first development of the animosity with his brothers was when Joseph went to his father with a bad report. The gossip about Moses disclosed to him the reason for the harsh slavery in Egypt. Not gossiping about the future plans for the exodus is one of the merits for which the Jewish people were eventually redeemed. Gossip caused our long and bitter exile that we still suffer today.
Plagues resulting from bad speech
This week's Torah portion mainly describes the plagues that afflict a person's body and garments (and house in next week's portion). The Midrash enumerates a number of sins that bring about this malady as a Divine punishment. The main reasons mentioned are speech related, such as gossiping, lies, breaking promises and other improper speech. People often underestimate the power of the spoken word and the responsibility to fulfill one's word.
Power of words
Words can heal and words can damage. Words can build and words can destroy. Words can put people together and words can breakdown relationships. It is no wonder that humans are defined as speaking beings at the time of creation (see Targum Onkelus Bereishis 2:7). The unique gift given to us by G'd is our ability to speak. But with this special gift comes a special responsibility to guard our tongues and be very careful how we use our powerful words.
It is interesting to note that the Torah obligates the person afflicted with one of these plagues to go to a kohen to inspect the plague and verify whether the person is rendered impure (see Negaim 3:1 and 12:5). Even a learned scholar may not decide this issue without the assistance of a kohen. Only once a kohen confirms that the person is infected with the plague does the person become impure. After the time of seclusion expires, the person must return to a kohen to inspect the status of the plague infection and determine whether the person is free of the impurity. The status of the infected person does not change until the kohen declares the person pure and free of the plague.
What is the significance of the kohen's pronouncement of purity or impurity. Why cannot a scholar who knows the laws of plagues make this determination, especially if a kohen is not more knowledgeable? It seems that the Torah wants to teach us the lesson about the power of the spoken word. The reason a person was smitten with a plague due to improper speech is that he does not realize the value of his own words. By being obligated to go to a kohen to await the spoken pronouncement of purity or impurity, hopefully the person learns the lesson of how the spoken word can make or break every part of our existence.
Similarly, the Talmud (Erchin 16b) explains what is mentioned in this week's portion (Vayikra 13:46) "All the days that the plague is upon him, he is impure … he should dwell in isolation outside the camp." Says the Talmud, why is the punishment resulting from the impurity for improper speech different than all other impurities (for example, contact with dead bodies) that the one infected with it has to sit in isolation. Answers the Talmud, by his improper speech this person separated husband and wife, broke up friendships, etc. Therefore, let him sit in isolation and contemplate the evil affect of his words.
The Talmud (Bava Basra 165a) emphasizes that everyone is afflicted in some measure with the sin of gossip. As soon as two people speak about a third person, it is almost impossible that no derogatory remark comes from the conversation. How many relationships have been broken, business opportunities spoiled, and other calamities caused for individuals and communities over the years? The Chofetz Chaim put a lot of effort into understanding the damage caused by the spoken word. In his introduction to his book, Chofetz Chaim, by which he later became known, he explains that the cause for our long and bitter exile resulted in large part from the evil tongue of gossip. Towards the end of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were fractioned into groups that could not live in peace together. He explains that when the Talmud (Yoma 9) speaks about the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Second Temple it manifested itself in derogatory talk about individuals and groups.
The Chofetz Chaim further explains that evil talk is the primary cause of prolonging our exile. First, this was the main reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. Second, if we cause impurity to our mouth through improper speech, it disables us from pure prayer on the level that is needed to bring about our redemption from this exile. As he quotes from the Zohar (Parashas Pekudei 264b), when a person contaminates his mouth with any of the sins of the spoken word, he causes a spiritual impediment and takes away from the power of prayer said from the same mouth. He further shows that the first seed to the destruction of the Temples on Tisha B'Av was the evil report of the ten spies given on the night of Tisha B'Av in the desert.
This week we read an extra portion, The Maftir, at the end of the regular Torah reading known as Parashas HaChodesh. This is read every year on the last Shabbos before Nissan in preparation for this special month of redemption. This was the month when the Jews merited the exodus from Egypt. And this is the month that our sages say is specially suited for our future redemption.
Joseph's bad report
It was decreed that the Jews had to go into exile already at the time of our Patriarch Avraham. As it says, (Bereishis 15:13) "And He [G'd] said to Abram, you shall know that your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own and they will serve them and they will afflict them for four hundred years." The Shem Meshmeul quotes the Zohar explaining that the fulfillment of this prophecy would not have necessarily involved all of the hardships that the Jews suffered in Egypt. These hardships were caused by the animosity between Joseph and his brothers. The first development of this animosity was when Joseph went to his father with the bad report about his brothers. No doubt Joseph had only the best intentions that his father should correct the brother's conduct. As the Chofetz Chaim explains (Shmiras Haloshon 2 Chapter 11), however, Joseph's mistake was that he should have tried to speak to his brothers before approaching his father. Again, we see the major cause of the difficulties of the slavery in Egypt was caused by gossip.
Gossip about Moses
Later in the exile we find that Moses also referred to the sin of gossiping as the cause of the difficult slavery in Egypt. When Moses went out and saw two Jews fighting and tried to stop them, they said to him (Shemos 2:14) "Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" Moses exclaimed, "Indeed, it has become known." Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains that Moses expressed, "Now I understand what I was always wondering about. What was the sin of the Jews that they sinned more than the seventy nations of the world, that they should be afflicted with such harsh slavery? Unfortunately, now I see that they are such evil gossipers, deserving of this." So we see that Moses understood that the gossip caused the harsh slavery in Egypt.
No gossip about the exodus
On the other hand, the Jews were given a test to see if they would keep quiet and not gossip. When G'd sent Moses back to redeem the Jews, G'd instructed Moses to tell them that they would soon leave Egypt and they would not leave empty-handed. As it says (Shemos 3:22) "And every woman shall request from her neighbour, from the one who lives in her house, silver vessels and gold vessels, garments …" Says the Midrash Rabbah (Parashas Emor 23:5 ), for a whole year not one member of the Jewish people spoke or gossiped about the future plans for the exodus. This is one of the merits for which they were eventually redeemed.
As we see, gossip brought us into the exile of Egypt and controlling gossip got us out of the exile. Gossip also caused our long and bitter exile that we still suffer today. In the merit of us controlling ourselves from gossiping we will be partners uniting the Jewish people and, hopefully soon, we will get out of this exile and bring true redemption for the benefit of the Jewish people and the whole world.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network