Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

It does seem that most of us talk too much. Or am I alone in this category? When you read through the book of Leviticus, it seems that talking is a dangerous enterprise. The major topic in the Torah readings of Tazria and Metzora is that mysterious ailment called tzara'at. Many have believed that this is leprosy, but it may be more akin to psoriasis. However, most authorities believe that it is the result of gossip. Last week we read: you shall not lie, you shall not swear falsely, you shall not curse a deaf person, you shall not go around as a gossipmonger, you shall not taunt a stranger, and any man who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. That's a lot of prohibitions dealing with the power of speech. Perhaps the best rule is 'mum's the word'. Yet in much rabbinic literature, especially of a mystical nature, humans are described as medaber, the one who speaks. So, obviously we must find a happy medium between talking too much and refraining from speech. How do we do that? Are there ground rules or guide lines? I think that we can get some guidance from this week's Torah reading, whose very name is emor or 'speak'. And that's a command I'm very happy to obey.

Our parsha begins with the famous statement: And the Lord said to Moses: Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none of you defile himself for a dead person among his people, except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and his unmarried sister (Leviticus 21:1-3). We learn a lot from that declaration. First of all, this is the list of people for we must mourn and sit shiva. We also learn from this the prohibition of kohanim becoming impure for anyone but those close relatives. As a result they often are standing outside at funerals and at cemeteries. But this week I'm interested in the format of the material. It varies from the usual formulation of 'And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying'. It totally eschews the Hebrew term for 'speak' (dabir), and uses the word for 'say' (emor), three times. But why? Let's investigate.

Here are a few attempts throughout the ages. Rashi said that the language implies that the kohanim were responsible to pass this knowledge and commitment from generation to generation. The Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century France) suggested that this special language was a softer expression after the language of being holy, the kohanim were being encouraged to maintain a higher standard, that of purity. Rabbeinu Bachye (died 1340) opined that this language of them relating it to others was not confined to the kohanim themselves, but that they should become the teachers of Torah for the entire nation. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (1690-1750) offered that this is a more exalted expression and refers to the special place of the kohanim who were privileged to stand before God.

However the position that I find the most attractive is that of the Sfat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905). The Gerrer Rebbe began his exposition of this verse over many years with a quote from the Midrash Raba on our verse, which referred us to this verse: The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the earth, purified seven times (Psalms 12:7). He then went on to explain that the statements of God are the ten statements God used to create the world (Pirkei Avot 5:1). These statements created a world which is totally pure. But over the ages this purity of speech went into exile, and it required a purification process to regain the pristine state. This happened for the Jews at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In this way the Jews became the purveyors of all the bounty which emanated from the Creation. Then something more esoteric occurred.

Whenever someone gets called to the Torah two blessings are recited. The first one is a standard blessing on the mitzva of Torah study, which that God chose us to receive the holy Torah, because we have a unique connection to the Almighty. The second blessing, notes the brilliant Rebbe of Gur, explains the special relationship that Jews have with the Torah. We recite: Who has given us the Torah of truth, and has implanted within us eternal life. Jews can discover novel approaches to Torah because it was embedded within us. We can refine and discover hidden treasures and truths in the Torah because we are really searching within our own being. In this earthly realm, the real Torah resides within the souls of Jews.

Now we can understand the verse chosen by the Midrash. It repeats the word 'say' three times, because it describes three processes or stages of Torah in the world. First was the Creation. Words from God created the cosmos. Secondly came the revelation at Sinai, when Torah became manifest to the hearts and minds of mankind (the written Torah). Thirdly, and lastly, Torah was fixed in the souls of Jews in such a way that we can discover new aspects and produce original insights to God's message to humankind (the oral Law). According to the Rebbe this is what the Midrash is coming to teach: We can be living, walking, talking embodiments of Torah.

Now, we can understand the whole point which the book of Leviticus has been building up to concerning speaking. We have to be extremely careful about what comes out of our mouths, because that orifice is the vehicle for spreading Torah in the world. How can we curse or lie or blaspheme or gossip, when our one mouth must be dedicated to this Divine task? Be careful what you do with your mouth, you may be depriving the world of its greatest legacy, God's word. Go ahead use your mouth, but use it for good.