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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male (12:2). If a person have on the skin of his flesh a seis, or a sapachas. (13:2)

It seems peculiar that a parsha which deals primarily with the tumah, spiritual contaminations, of tzaraas, spiritual leprosy in its many forms, should be called Parashas Tazria, the Parasha of giving birth. While, in fact, the parsha does begin with the laws concerning a yoledes, woman who just gave birth, it proceeds to focus on tumas tzaraas. Why? The Torah is giving us a subtle message: Bearing a child, procreating, is the act of bringing life into this world. Speaking lashon hora, evil/disparaging speech/slander, takes a life. It is murder, perhaps more discriminating, but no less insidious. It is not violent, but it is, in many instances, just as destructive and fatal. The Torah commences with the positive act of bringing life into this world and the ensuing commitments one has to Hashem vis-?-vis the korbanos, sacrifices, and the period of tumah following the birth. Then the Torah demonstrates simply how derogatory speech and even a negative facial expression can destroy a life.

Lashon hora has dominated the public mindset for quite some time now. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, wrote his classic, Shemiras Halashon, in order to heighten Jewish consciousness concerning this transgression. When we think about it, however, lashon hora is only an expression of another severe character defect that plagues the speaker. He is bitter, because he sees everything from a malignant perspective. Negativity is the way he perceives things and people. The truth is that such a person is probably filled with such self-loathing that he expresses it by denigrating others. Whether it has been the negative experiences in his life or his own feelings of inadequacy, he expresses his emotions by spewing filth and vitriol about, and at, others. One who is secure with himself has no reason to constantly denigrate others. There are other individuals who, although they may have achieved personal success, are intolerant of others who are also doing well. This leads them to speak negatively and disparagingly of others, while simultaneously presenting themselves as noble, refined individuals.

Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, quotes the Reishis Chochmah who cites an alarming statement from Chazal. At the moment prior to death, one comes face to face with the Malach Ha'Maves, Angel of Death. The angel's head is full of eyes, and his sword is drawn. He asks the individual four questions, and, based upon the answers, his death will either be serene or terrifying. Those questions are: Did you study Torah, or did you assist your husband in his study of Torah? Did you perform acts of kindness? Did you recite Krias Shma twice daily? Last, the angel asks: Did you treat your fellow Jew as a king?

What does it mean to treat our fellow Jew as a king? How would we treat a king? Respect, admiration, awe, deference, esteem, are just some of the words that come to mind. We certainly would not be condescending or derogatory. Is it not frightening that our entire transition into the next world, the World of Truth, the real world, is dependent upon the manner in which we treat our fellow Jew?

Friendship is a relationship based upon mutual respect. While many of us are able to initiate a relationship, sustaining that relationship to the point that it becomes a full-fledged friendship seems more difficult. First, it is critical to understand the importance of a friend. A young man, far from home and without money, wired his father the following: "I am in the big city without money or friends. What shall I do?" His father wired him back, "Make some friends at once!" If there is one thing without which one cannot survive, it is a friend.

Understanding the importance of friendship is not sufficient unless one values that particular relationship. It must mean something to the person or it will not last. When one values his friends, he will treat them with respect and accord them their proper esteem. The following vignette gives us an idea about the nature of this relationship.

Two soldiers who fought side by side during World War I became fast comrades. When, after an unsuccessful night sortie, one of them was missing, the second youth heard a cry from no man's land. His commanding officer granted permission for a rescue attempt but cautioned, "It is not worth it. Your friend is probably dead by this time, and you will probably end up throwing your life away." Nonetheless, he made the attempt. Some time later, the rescuer returned, dragging the body of his dead comrade. He himself had been mortally wounded. Looking up at his commanding officer, the soldier said with joy in his voice, "Sir, it was worth it. When I reached him, he looked up at me and said, 'I knew you would come.'" That is friendship.

If a person will have on his skin a seis or a sapachas. (13:2)

In the Talmud Pesachim 118A, Chazal make a powerful statement. "Anyone who is mekabel, accepts/listens to, a derogatory utterance deserves to be thrown to the dogs. For it is stated, (Shemos 22:30) (Regarding the flesh of an animal that was wounded and rendered treifah, unkosher), "To the dog, you shall cast it." Immediately following this (Shemos 23:1), the Torah writes: Lo sisah shema shav, "You shall not accept a vain (false) report." This can also be read as, lo sashi, "Do not cause a vain report to be accepted." In Hilchos Deios, The Rambam goes as far as to posit that one who listens to lashon hora, evil/slanderous speech, is worse than the one who speaks it.

In his sefer, Shemiras Ha'Lashon, the Chafetz Chaim,zl, cites the Maharal M'Prague who explains why the mekabeil lashon hora, one who accepts evil speech, should be thrown to the dogs. In Egypt, when the firstborn were being killed, the dogs controlled themselves and did not growl or whine. This person whom Hashem has endowed with intellect and sense is unable to control himself in order to say no to the slanderer. He is, therefore, on a lower plane than the dog.

Why is the punishment for one who listens, who is a passive participant, greater than the one who actively speaks the derogatory words? Horav Mordechai Schwab, zl, explains that the listener commits a more insidious act than the speaker. The mekabeil concludes and complements the speaker's act of aggression. The speaker initiates the sin; the listener completes it. Without the listener, the speaker's words would have no essence, no substance, nowhere to go, because no one would be listening. If there is no listener, there is no lashon hora. Everything follows the conclusion. Thus, the listener commits the greater act of malevolence.

On the other hand, one who is careful and guards himself from prohibited behavior will merit great reward. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, writes, "The primary merit for gaining entrance into Olam Habah, the World to Come, is by guarding one's tongue. This is greater than all of the Torah study and good deeds that one performs."

Rav Schwab addresses the sin of lashon hora and the grave consequences which result from providing an avenue for the slanderer. What connotes listening to lashon hora? Must the listener participate in the conversation, or may he just provide the channel for the slander to proceed further, continuing its malignant evolution?

The Talmud in Shabbos 56a quotes Rav who states that David HaMelech accepted a slanderous report. After David established his monarchy, he sought out any descendants of Shaul HaMelech, in order to honor them out of his deference to Yehonasan, Shaul's son and David's friend. The king discovered a slave named Tziva from the house of Shaul. He, in turn, informed David that one son of Yehonasan, Mefiboshes, still lived. When Tziva informed David about Mefiboshes, he said it in such a manner as to intimate that Mefiboshes was devoid of Torah knowledge. David HaMelech, however, found Mefiboshes to be learned in Torah. Even though David knew that Tziva had slandered Mefiboshes, he still asked him about his whereabouts later on. Tziva then replied that Mefiboshes had committed treason against the king. David listened to these slanderous words and gave Mefiboshes' property to Tziva. Chazal say that David was punished middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. Since he believed slander and divided Mefiboshes' property between master (Mefiboshes) and slave (Tziva), Hashem divided David's kingdom between king (Rechavam) and slave (Yeravam). This act ultimately prevented the Jewish People from making their pilgrimage to Yerushalayim, which, in turn, led to the exile.

The exile of the Jewish People indirectly had its roots in what was probably an innocuous case of accepting a derogatory implication about someone. No participation, no speaking, just listening. The result: galus, exile. Do we need to hear more?

Parashas Metzora

This shall be the law of the metzora. (14:2)

In Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas, the Rambam writes that tzaraas is not a natural illness, but rather a specific sign and wonder associated only with the Jewish People. The punishment of tzaraas does not affect anyone who is not Jewish. We wonder why this is. Lashon hora, the primary transgression which is the precursor of this dread disease, is a deed that belongs in the category of choveil u'mazik, one who wounds or damages another individual or his property. Bnei Noach, those not of Jewish birth, are commanded in these laws. Therefore, if the laws of damages apply to gentiles, and lashon hora clearly damages, why are they not included in the punishment?

A number of commentators ask this question. One explanation that I heard is that there are two types of dibbur, speech. First, is speech whose source is in the natural world. It has no source of kedushah, holiness, and thus has no hashpaah, influence or impact, in this world. It is comprised of nothing more than empty words. It has no positive or negative effect in a cosmic sense. This is the type of dibbur possessed by one who is not of the Jewish faith. The dibbur ha'Yisraeli, Jewish word, reverts back to its original source, which preceded the creation of the world. Thus, it has kedushah, and the inherent quality of yetzirah, ability to create, to inspire, influence, and impact. Therefore, when Klal Yisrael prays, their tefillos, prayers, which are articulated through the medium of dibbur, have a powerful impact. The power of speech of the Jew originates in the cosmic sphere preceding the creation of the world so that it has the ability to effect change in this world.

Klal Yisrael's speech is holy, because the people are intrinsically holy. Negative, disparaging speech creates a negative ripple in the world, catalyzing tumah, spiritual pollution. Therefore, a Jew who derogates will be punished with tzaraas, rendering him tamei, spiritually unclean. This only applies to a Jew, however, because only his speech has such a compelling effect.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Chafetz Chaim writes concerning the pasuk, "'This shall be the law of the metzora…He shall be brought to the Kohen (Vayikra 14:2),' the purification of the metzora is contingent upon the dibbur, words, of the Kohen." Since the plague of tzaraas is the result of a deviation of (the power of) the tongue, the Torah decreed that the therapy for this sin and its rectification derives from the power of speech - the power that comes from those who guard and consecrate their speech. About them it is written in Malachi 2:7, "For the lips of the Kohen shall safeguard knowledge."

The one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare to the Kohen, saying: Something like an affliction appeared to me in the house. (14:35)

Chazal question the word lo, to him. Obviously, it is his house. This teaches us that the lo (the one to whom the house belongs) is the source of his sin. He designates the house and its contents to himself - and only to himself. When he is approached concerning lending one of his possessions, his immediate response is, "I do not own it" or "I do not have one." Therefore, Hashem makes him empty his house of all of its possessions, so that his lie will be exposed for all its ugliness. Negaim, plagues, are the result of tzarus ayin, a selfish eye. One refuses to share his good fortune with others.

In Pirkei Avos 2:8, we learn, "If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, for this is the purpose of your creation." On the other hand, as Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita, notes, "If you retain the Torah for yourself, if you refuse to teach and inspire others, then what is the purpose of your existence?" We are all here for a reason, as Horav Chaim,zl, m'Volozhin writes in his preface to the Nefesh HaChaim, L'hoil l'acharini, "To help others." Otherwise, what purpose do we serve in this world?"

In the Talmud Niddah 30b, Chazal teach that when a fetus is in its mother's womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah. Once he is about to enter the world at birth, the angel slaps him on his mouth, causing him to forget everything that he had learned. Rav Elyashiv explains this practically. If the purpose of creation of man was self-serving, if he was to worry only about himself, his birth would be unnecessary. After all, he has already studied the entire Torah from an outstanding teacher! This obligates us to acknowledge that man is created to teach and inspire others, to draw out his spiritual treasures and share them with others. Man is only a treasurer, taking care of the wonderful spiritual gifts that the Almighty has granted him. Understandably, he has a responsibility to dispense this treasure to those who need it.

One who feels that the house is "his" refuses to even lend what Hashem has granted him to others. He claims that he does not possess the object, thus demonstrating that he does not take into consideration the many people he could help or even save. Such a person will be visited with a plague on his house. He has misappropriated Hashem's gifts.

Interestingly, this person is acutely aware of what will occur when he goes to the Kohen and says, "Like a plague appeared in my house." He will now have to remove all of his possessions, and the truth will be revealed. All of his lies will be exposed. Yet, he is prepared for all the public humiliation and shame, because that is the halachah. One who has a plague must go to the Kohen. This is not your ordinary sinner. He wants his cake; he wants to eat it; and he is willing to suffer humiliation for it.

Rav Elyashiv comments that this idea applies equally to the individual who keeps his Torah to himself and refuses to share it with others. He must realize that he is but a bursar to allocate his Torah with others. Once Rav Yisrael Salanter, zl, was told about a chasid, pious individual, who was known as Reb Leib of Kelm. Rav Yisrael responded, "I will consider him a chasid only if he is prepared to take the place of the storekeeper for an hour in the middle of the day, so that the storekeeper can take time off and go to the bais ha'medrash to study Torah. A chasid is one who is willing to share his Olam Haba with someone else!

When the Chafetz Chaim zl, became eighty years old, he gathered together his children, his students and his close friends and he made the following declaration: "Today, I have become eighty years old. You must all be wondering why I have called together this august group. Certainly, I am not one to celebrate with a birthday party. Why, then, are you here? Let me tell you why I am doing this. When I published my volume of Shemiras HaLashon, describing the sin of speaking lashon hora, its effect and consequences, I was not simply preaching to others while personally ignoring the message. No! I was meticulous in guarding my tongue, in being careful not to say anything that might be misconstrued as disparaging, but I was afraid. What would I do if I were to die prematurely? What would people say? Here I am underscoring the Chazal that equates long life as a reward for guarding one's tongue, and I, its primary expositor and publicist, dies young? I would have been called a charlatan. Look! The Chafetz Chaim died young! Can you imagine the chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name that would have resulted from this? Now that I have reached the age of eighty years, I can say, Baruch Hashem, the Name of Heaven will not be profaned."

The Chafetz Chaim was a tzaddik without peer; he lived to be almost one hundred years old. His entire life was a lesson in middas ha'chesed, attribute of kindness, as he lived and breathed for the Jewish People. He wrote his magnum opus, the Mishnah Berurah, which is a sefer, literary work, on halachah that is important for everyone - even the greatest and most erudite Torah scholars. Yet, originally it was written for the purpose of teaching the average Jew how to live and how to observe halachah. It was a labor of love, and a consummate act of chesed. He also wrote the Machne Yisrael, a handbook for the Jewish soldier, which halachically addresses the soldier's needs as he goes into battle. The life of the Chofetz Chaim is an example of a life lived for Klal Yisrael.

Va'ani Tefillah

Az yeranenu atzei ya'ar
Then, the trees of the forest will also jubilate.

When the world community recognizes Hashem, when the End of the Days, which has long been predicted by the Neviim, prophets, becomes a reality, the joy in the world will be unprecedented. The oceans and cultivated fields and everything in them will jubilate, as well as the trees of the forest, representing all the uncultivated components of nature. Why does the Psalmist underscore the word az, then? The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains that now, when a person cuts down a tree and uses its wood for fashioning an idol or erecting an edifice to serve idol-worship, then the tree does not fulfill its G-d-given purpose on this world. On the contrary, it is used to anger its Creator. When Hashem's reign spreads to the entire world, His monarchy will be accepted by all nations. They will all "tremble before Him," as the new world order is ushered in with the advent of Moshiach. Then, every creation will be used to fulfill its true G-d-given objective. Then the trees will sanctify Hashem's Name in jubilation, for they will have finally attained their true purpose.

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