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by Jacob Solomon


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

Some time ago, a good friend made the following points:

“Those with small minds talk about others.

“Those with ordinary minds talk about events.

“Those with great minds talk about good ideas.

“But those with the best minds put the ideas into positive and creative action.”

The Rambam, in his Commentary on the Mishna (Avot 1:17) brings the story of a certain wise man that was asked why he was always quiet when he sat in the company of others. He answered that

1.Lashon hara (gossip) rechilut (tale bearing) and foul language are totally evil.

2.Discussing people positively can have both good and bad effects.

3.Talking about past events is neutral – neither constructive nor destructive.

4.Only good comes out of discussing wisdom…

“As to the first three categories,” the wise man said, “I don’t talk about them at all. As to the fourth, I would talk about it, but I would be considered strange in a society which does not understand such matters, and that is why I remain silent.”

This Parasha focuses on the plague of tzaraat. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not ‘leprosy’ as we understand it – but a Divinely imposed sign of moral deficiency. The Kli Yakar (on 13:2) divides the spiritual causes of tzaraat into three groups:

  1. Lashon Hara – as with Miriam’s report about Moses’ domestic life (Num. 12:10).
  2. Gasut Ruach – haughtiness of spirit – as with Naaman. “Naaman, the chief officer of the King of Aram was a great man before his master,” (Kings II 5:1) is understood by the Kli Yakar as to mean that he conducted himself in an arrogant manner.
  3. Chemdat Mammon – jealous desire for money: Elisha had cured Naaman from tzaraat. Naaman offered Elisha payment, but he refused to accept. Gechazi, Elisha’s student chased after Naaman and took the payment for himself. He was punished with tzaraat (Kings II 5:27).

Common to all groups is small-mindedness – as above. Such individuals feel ill-will towards the situation and possessions of others. The wise man referred to by the Rambam felt uneasy and unhappy in the company of such people. So, for that matter, do many decent people living today.

This point helps us explain the famous story brought by the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 16:2)

A certain peddler would wander among the towns near Tzippori, calling out, “Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?” All the people would assemble before him. R. Yannai was sitting and studying. He said to him, “Come here and sell it to me.” He said to him, “You and others like you do not need it!” (R. Yannai) begged him to explain, so the peddler came over and brought him the book of Tehillim (Psalms) and showed him the verse: “Who is the man who desires life? …Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.”(Psalms 34:13). R. Yannai said, “King Solomon said the same thing – ‘Whoever guards his tongue and his mouth, guards his soul from troubles’” (Proverbs 21:23). R. Yannai said, “All my life I would read this verse… and I did not know where it was explained until that peddler came and informed me ‘What man is he that desires life?’ Moses therefore warned Israel: “This shall be the law of the metzora – motzi ra” (someone who speaks evil about someone else).

What, precisely, did the peddler tell R. Yannai that he did not know previously?

One suggestion may be found in looking at the following verses in Deuteronomy (20:1,5-7).

When you go to war against your enemy… the officers shall speak to the people saying: “Which man has built a house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. Which man has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will redeem it. Which man has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will marry her.”

These three things – the vineyard, the house, and getting married have the following thing in common: they are, or should be, creative and procreative. Success in these activities gives a person a feeling that he has given of himself, achieved something solid and permanent, and produced something good that will outlive him. These projects also ought to enrich the lives of other people. Such operations are so central to the core of one’s spiritual well-being that the Torah ordained that if a person is in the process of completing any of them, he do so, and only then serve at the front.

With that idea, let us return to consider the words of the peddler. What really gives us life? By watching what we say, and by avoiding gossip, we find ourselves keeping away from the small-mindedness of those who speak lashon hara - a spiritually destructive force. We fill our social vacuum by sharing ideas with people who radiate positive mental attitudes, whose ideas and work advances the Creation. As stated earlier on, great minds talk about good ideas; only good comes out of discussing wisdom. We have gone to a higher plane of life that nurtures the soul rather than debases the soul – to spiritually creative forces.

The highest form of creativity is action – more important than words! (Avot 1:17) Our Creator’s approval for genuine creative and procreative activity as a force that brings out our highest qualities is seen in His specifying that people so involved should be excused from fighting at the front.

That is what the peddler taught R. Yannai. The elixir of life is avoiding spiritually destructive forces… Nature abhors a vacuum, so tuning away from those forces is the first step into tapping into the life-promoting spiritually creative forces…



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