Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Gift of Speech

 By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Having just lived through a plague, we have become familiar with the deprivation it causes, even among the people not physically affected by it.

One of the many costs of the coronavirus was that governments used it to force people into isolation. Elderly people who depended on visitors to keep them connected to the world and provide for them social stimulation became deprived of that vital human need of speaking and interacting with others. They suffered cognitively and physically. Illnesses crept up on them and they lost their ability to walk and move about.

Children who were locked out of school were severely impacted by not being able to play and speak with their friends and classmates, leading to mental diseases and other lingering long-term effects brought on by a lack of personal instruction and social contact.

Thankfully, in most places where our brethren live, the pandemic has dissipated and the conditions have eased. People are able to resume normal social activity and are no longer confined to their homes. They are being rejuvenated as they are reconnected to the world in general, and to their families, friends, workmates, and shul-mates.

Playing with a baby is one of the most joyous things a person can do. The baby has no concerns other than being entertained by you. All your pressing concerns are washed away as love is returned with love and a smile begets a smile. It is all pure and genuine. But there is at least one major drawback: the baby doesn’t speak. It is difficult to develop a relationship with someone with whom you cannot carry on a conversation. Hashem blessed man with the gift of speech, of being able to communicate. Those who are unable to speak or hear are able to communicate through other means. It is by doing so that they are able to have meaningful relationships. Without communication, a person is virtually alone.

There are people who are talented in music, but do not have the time or ability to take lessons and reach a professional level. They are busy working and making a living to support their family, put food on the table, and pay their mortgage or rent. The music lies buried inside of them.

When the Jews were enslaved in Mitzrayim, their inherent greatness lay dormant inside of them. Their music and song were trapped inside of them. They were unable to express themselves. They were subdued and their humanity was suppressed. They went through their days occupied with mundane servitude, happy to make it to another day.

When they were redeemed, their gifts of speech burst forth, their greatness and depth stifled no longer. They crossed the Yam Suf and emerged new people, a new nation ready to burst forth and accept the Torah on Har Sinai.

Parshas Tazria teaches us the majesty of man. Following the receipt of the Torah and its laws and the construction of the Mishkon, we receive the parshiyos dealing with the laws of tzoraas.

We have been blessed with speech, and now that the Jewish people were freed and empowered, they learned the punishment of those who use their gift in a way that is inconsistent with its purpose in creation.

Each one of us is a scion of majesty and greatness. The words we utter must be precious to us. Everything we say should be measured and clearly thought through before being spoken.

The parshiyos of Tazria and Metzora are read as we enter the Sefirah period. The parshiyos discuss the affliction of tzoraas and the necessity to remove the afflicted person from among the community and place him in isolation for weekly periods.

Bodod yeisheiv.

The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:1) teaches that tzoraas is caused by a person succumbing to seven anti-social activities: bearing conceited eyes, a tongue that speaks falsehood, hands that spill innocent blood, a heart that plans wicked thoughts, feet that run to do evil, a liar who testifies falsely, and, the worst of them all, someone who causes disputes to break out between people. This is accomplished through spreading slander and lies, motzie sheim ra and lashon hora. Thus, the Torah refers to the person with tzora’as as a metzora, for the word is formulated from the words motzie sheim ra.

In this world, there are four elementary forms. They are domeim, tzomei’ach, chai and medaber, the inert, such as stone and dirt; that which grows, such as grass and trees; that which is alive, such as animals; and, above them all, man, who is granted the gift of speech.

The ability to speak allows us to effectively communicate with each other. With speech, we can learn, grow, develop, study Torah, engage in mitzvos, and be part of a cohesive social fabric. Thus, Targum Onkelos famously says that the words in Bereishis that state that man was alive, “Vayehi adam lenefesh chaya,” indicate that “vehavas b’adam ruach memalela,” man was given the power of speech. The ability to speak gave man his spirit and life.

Life is that ability to connect with other people – the experience of interacting with them and using words to convey emotion. The breath invested into each word is the stuff of life itself.

This is why a person who spreads dissection is punished with tzora’as. Man was bestowed with the gift of speech to enable him to live an exalted life, connected with Hashem and Klal Yisroel. A person who abuses that gift and uses it to separate people from each other is therefore isolated from everyone else and locked away.

Bodod. Alone. Because he rejected the gift of life and used his words to create division and hate, he is forced to become withdrawn from society, deprived of the essential joy of life and social interaction.

We received the Torah when we were united, k’ish echod beleiv echod, and all of Klal Yisroel became areivim zeh bozeh, interconnected. Yisroel v’Oraisa v’Kudsha Brich Hu chad hu. We are connected to each other, to the Torah, and to Hashem, as one.

Sefer Derech Mitzvosecha (Issur Sinas Yisroel, Mitzvas Ahavas Yisroel) discusses the arvus that connects all the Jewish people. He quotes the Arizal, who says that all of Klal Yisroel is one body, with each person being a different limb of the single entity. We are all intertwined with each other. He quotes Rav Chaim Vital that the Arizal would recite vidui on behalf of sinners, because all of Israel is one body.

Someone who recognizes that we are linked with each other and each one of us is comprised of parts of other Jews is not encumbered by pettiness or jealousy. Those who are cognizant of that which connects us are conscious of the fact that our neshamos emanate from the same place, beneath the Kisei Hakavod. When they view another Jew, they feel the deep connection, unfettered by externals that distract the rest of us.

Man is made up of chomer, a spiritual component, and tzurah, a physical component. The image of the person is his tzurah, which includes his fine character, depth and spirituality, which are encompassed in the outer physical container. A person who is fully occupied with the superficial aspects of life is entrapped by his chomer and misses out on the significance and essence of life.

A person of chomer, who lacks in tzurah, rejects unity, as his shallowness takes away from him the ability to appreciate the tzurah at the root of everything. He sees everything in terms of their physical appeal and judges people by their physical possessions. When he sees that others have more money than him, more expensive wines and cars, and larger and more stately homes, he becomes overcome with jealousy. That leads him to speak lashon hora and seek to create animosity for the subjects of his jealousy. He finds it hard to live among other people because, invariably, he finds people who have more than what he has.

Tzoraas forces the person consumed with exterior impressions to confront physical imperfections that are brought on by his spiritual inadequacies, as he ponders the essence of his existence.

The posuk in Bereishes (2:18) states, “Lo tov heyos ha’adam levado.” As Hashem was creating the world, He said that it is not good for man to be alone and He fashioned a partner for him. Loneliness is not healthy. Man must be involved with other people and not become selfishly wrapped up with himself, his own wants and desires.

The purveyor of lashon hora, hotzaas sheim ra and rechilus divides people, bringing on loneliness and ill feelings. His punishment fits the crime, as he is left in solitary confinement.

Great people perceive the joy in being around people. They value being part of a whole. They seek people whom they can help. For we are all one.

This week’s parsha equips us with the insight to give life to others.

There is no shortage of lonely people. They may even have spouses and large families. Some appear to have many friends. They are regular, nice, normal people of any age. But they are lonely. Talk to them.

There is no shortage of people who can use a little chizuk. Let them know you care about them.

One who speaks lashon hora seeks to deprive his victims of their self-worth and the respect others have for them. Someone who lacks respect for others and causes them to lose their own self-respect snuffs out their spirit.

Someone who is so wrapped up with himself that he snuffs out other people’s respect is a person who cannot live with others. This is the reason why one who has tzoraas is locked away by himself until he learns to respect others.

If being alone is being separated from life, then being together is being very much alive. With a genuine interest in others, we can help restore life to people and give them a reason to smile. With our gift of speech, we can build people.

Consideration of other people’s feelings on any level strengthens our connection not only to each other, but also to the depths of our neshamos and to Hashem.

We mourn for the students of Rabi Akiva who died during the Sefirah period. Lo nahagu kavod zeh lozeh. They didn’t treat each other respectfully and therefore were afflicted by a plague.

These days of Sefirah are referred to in many seforim as days when we can rise spiritually. The period approaching Shavuos is considered an auspicious time. As the time of Matan Torah approaches, so does the inherent kedusha of every progressing day.

The study of the parshiyos and halachos of tzoraas should serve to assist us in the toning down of our concentration on the pursuit of physical pleasures involving chumriyus and intensifying our quest for spiritual achievements. They are longer lasting and more productive, bulking up on that which defines us and contributes to the wholesomeness of our tzurah.

The study of this week’s parshiyos should serve to remind us of what our priorities should be in life. As government money flows, as certain industries benefit from the government largesse, and as stimulus money fills bank accounts, we should remember not to compare what we have to what other people possess and not to become jealous and bitter when we don’t have as much as the other person appears to have. Doing so leads us to depression and anti-social activities, which have no rewards and only cause us to become bitter and angry, engaging in the speaking of lashon hora, one of the worst and most dangerous sins.

May the lessons of Tazria and Metzora - the significance of words, the value of being connected, and the appreciation of others - fill us with the resolve to use our gift of ruach memalela correctly, elevating ourselves and our lives to new heights.


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