A Twist of the Tongue

By Rabbi Menachem Oppen

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Parshas Bechukosai


Rashi explains that we merit to receive all of the brochos recorded in the parsha as a reward for toiling in Torah.

The Chafetz Chaim points out (l42) that for every moment one spends speaking Loshon Hora, he is transgressing the commandment to learn Torah constantly. The mitzva of learning Torah outweighs all other mitzvos, and its punishment is extremely severe.

A man is permitted to digress from learning Torah temporarily, in order to conduct his business, cheer someone up, or the like. However, there is no valid excuse for speaking Loshon Hora instead of learning Torah.

Each word of Torah which one attains is a separate mitzva. Just a few moments of study can easily add up to hundreds of mitzvos. When one steals time from Torah to speak Loshon Hora, he not only foresakes hundreds of mitzvos, but he accumulates hundreds of aveiros in their stead.

Speaking Loshon Hora not only minimizes the quantity of Torah a person is expected to acquire; it also ruins the quality of the Torah he is learning. Once a person defiles his mouth with words of Loshon Hora, the words of Torah then uttered lose their potency to some degree. (l43)

The Gemmara (l44) states that a child is taught the entire Torah before it is born. Moments before birth, however, an angel comes and strikes him on the mouth, thereby causing him to forget all that he has learned.

Wouldn’t striking the head accomplish this more effectively, than a mere tap on the mouth? No, the angel is not meant to harm us physically in any way.

The unborn child is being girded with advice he’ll need out in the world. "Be careful with your mouth. It can cause you to lose all the Torah you may ever attain."


Hashem promises us that if we keep the Torah, "You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall before you." The inevitable question is: "Who needs enemies? Would it not be better if there were no enemies to pursue?

Yet, that is the way of the world. We find that even the greatest people had opposition. People of the highest stature are often accused of the worst crimes. In each of the following examples, the charges were, of course, completely false.

The Gemmara relates that Moshe Rabbenu was accused of adultery. (l45) He left the camps of Bnai Yisroel to reside elsewhere until the outrage had subsided.

Yirmiyahu Hanavi was also accused of this terrible aveira. (l46)

For most of Dovid Hamelech’s lifetime, he suffered persecution in one form or another. (Shaul, Avshalom, etc.)

The great sage, Rava, was thrown into jail, having been accused of breaking into the king’s treasury. (l47)

In the year 5624, the Malbim was thrown into prison, where he was treated like a common outlaw. His crime was defending the Torah, and disproving the claims and criticisms of the Reform movement.

The leader of the Reform temple retaliated by claiming that the Malbim was a German spy, no less. Consequently, the Malbim was imprisoned on charges of treason and sentenced to death.

With great difficulty, Sir Moses Montefiore, a well known philanthropist of that time, was finally able to arrange for his pardon. The sentence was then "reduced" to deportation from Romania, with the condition that he could never return home.

Realizing that even the best people have enemies (who may slander them falsely) makes it plausible not to believe all accusations against others.


Much of this parsha describes the bitter consequences of not keeping the Torah. This section is called The Tochacha. It is customary to read it in a low tone, in order to better enable the listener to absorb its powerful content. (l48) Although the same message is being delivered, we are careful to deliver it in a gentle manner.

At times, we must convey derogatory information for a beneficial purpose. We should still try to do so as gently as possible. One must be sure not to exaggerate, nor may he knowingly leave out any details which would make things look better for the subject. Even if the mentioning of a certain detail would not clear the subject of of guilt, in light of what you have added, the listener will judge him more favorably. (l49) The importance of being cautious about the method of delivery can be seen from the following episode. (l50)

When Yehoshua entered Eretz Yisroel after capturing Yericho, he battled against the city of Ay. During this battle , thirty- six of his men were killed. The remaining regiment of 3,000 fled the city. Yehoshua cried out and pleaded with Hashem. Hashem told him that his defeat was a punishment for a sin which was committed. Some items were unlawfully taken from the spoils of the city of Yericho.

Yehoshua asked Hashem to tell him who was guilty of this, so he could rectify the situation. Hashem replied, "Am I a tale bearer that you expect me to tell you to name the sinner? Cast lots and you will see".

Yehoshua did as Hashem said. First he established the tribe from which the criminal stemmed. Again, he cast lots to discern the family of which he was a member. A third casting ascertained which family member committed the sin. Finally, the sinner was killed. From then on, Yehoshua was victorious in battle.

An obvious question comes to mind. Since the outcome of casting lots is obviously guided by Hashem, why didn’t Hashem just inform Yehoshua at the onset, whom to convict?

The answer, of course, is that we are meant to learn something from the way in which Hashem responded. Even if information must be related, the ends do not always justify the means. Meaning, the way it is given over is not at all inconsequential. When information is revealed with some reluctance the listener perceives the giver’s preference not to disgrace another person.


Hashem warns us that he will bring harsh retribution if we do not toil in learning Torah. If for no other reason , the Bnai Torah are worthy of respect for their learning forestalls calamity from befalling Klal Yisroel. Speaking or listening to Loshon Hora about one who toils in Torah can have severe repurcussions. (l51)

There was once a wicked Jew who worked as a tax-collector for the king. He forced people to give much more than the king demanded, and kept the surplus for himself. After many years of causing much suffering, he passed away. On that same day, a great tzaddik passed away as well.

Everyone in the city was grieved over the passing of the great tzaddik. Naturally, they all went to his funeral and escorted his coffin as it was being brought to the cemetery. The only few people who were not part of the tzaddik’s funeral were the immediate family of the tax collector. Following behind the enormous procession for the tzaddik, they carried their own deceased towards his final resting place.

Suddenly, troops from a foreign country appeared and began to attack. The people panicked and ran for their lives. Both coffins lay abandoned on the road.

One close disciple of the tzaddik did not forsake his Rebbe, and remained standing next to the coffin.

Only many hours later, when the danger had finally passed, did the prestigious leaders return to perform this sacred mitzvah. Eventually, they were rejoined by other city members. In the ensuing tumult, however, the people mistakenly encircled the wrong coffin.

The distressed student protested vehemently, but was ignored. Thus, the tzaddik was buried only by his student and the few relatives of the tax collector, while the latter’s coffin was accompanied by an enormous crowd and bestowed much honor.

The student was extremely disturbed. What sin could have caused this tzaddik to be buried in such a comparatively disgraceful manner? And what merit could this wicked fellow have to be accorded such great honor? Why, the elders of the city had personally shoveled the earth which covered his coffin.

That night, his Rebbe appeared to him in a dream. "Do not worry", he consoled his student. "I will show you the great glory I receive here in Gan Eden. I will also show you how that man is suffering immensely in Gehinnom. But first I will reveal to you the good deed which earned him the decent burial he received."

"He once made a party in order to flatter a high-ranking officer. The officer never showed up. Instead of destroying all of the excess food, for which he had no need, he invited the poor to come, and partake of it as they pleased. The rich benefited as they did not have to distribute funds for a while. This single kindness which he displayed towards the city’s residents was recompensed by their one-time kindness to him.

"As for me, I was also punished for a sin that occurred only once. I heard someone belittle a Torah scholar, and I did not protest."

Depriving a Torah scholar of the respect due him, cost the tzaddik the "final respects" which would ordinarily benefit the burial of a tzaddik as he was.

If one speaks Loshon Hora about one who should be respected for his Torah , he himself may be deprived of the respect which would otherwise be due him.


Chazal tell us that when the Torah forewarns us that, "A man will stumble on account of his brother", it refers to the sins of his brother. (l52) This is because every Jew is responsible for his fellow man. It is incumbent upon us to see that others do not sin.

When speaking Loshon Hora, it is inevitable that others will be caused to sin. We bear the responsibility of not only our sin, but also of those whom we caused to listen.

Chazal tell us that it is worse to cause another person to sin , than it is to take away his life. Causing a person’s death robs him of this transient world, whereas causing him to sin robs him of an Everlasting World. (l53)

The Chafetz Chaim (l54) cautions that we should not be persuaded by the Yetzer Hora’s claims that the listener does not seem to be losing anything. After all, he listens with a smile.

This ruse can be compared to the following scenario:

Once, a thief dressed up like an important person. He then approached a stranger in town, and pretended to recognize him, claiming to be an old acquaintance of his. The stranger, knowing that he was mistaken, tried to correct him, but the thief insisted.

Inviting the visitor to eat lunch with him at a very expensive restaurant, he added, "If you are not my old friend, you will become my new friend, for I will treat you to a meal." Needless to say, the visitor conceded to his offer.

Upon entering the restaurant, the thief spoke to his new companion with warmth and ambience. "Check off whatever you want on the menu" he bade gallantly "with my compliments."

Together they placed their orders, and enjoyed a delicious meal.When they were just about finished, the thief excused himself for a moment. Much to his guests consternation, he did not return.

The owner of the restaurant demanded his money. Realizing that he had been "taken", the stranger tried to explain, but to no avail. He paid the entire bill.

Let us take note of the metamorphosis here. As long as the two men were eating together, the visitor was not angry with the thief. In fact, by then, the stranger may have even considered him a friend. Once he was forced to pay for his meal, however, he was enraged. He felt only hate towards the crook for his shrewd play.

"And so it is in this world", concludes the Chafetz Chaim. The listener does not realize the harm which the speaker is causing him. On the contrary, he thinks of him as a good friend, who confides in him. This situation, however, is only temporary. When he comes to the World of Truth, he will find that all the words which he heard and spoke were recorded. He will have to account for everything. His attitudes towards his "confidantes" will be greatly changed, for he will have discovered that those who caused h im to sin were his spiritual foes.


It is evident from this parsha that suffering atones for our sins. Since we all have our bundle, the prudent thing to do would be to find some painless means that would accomplish the same goal.

How and why does suffering atone for wrongdoing? Sin happens when one forgets or is oblivious to the fact that there is a Creator Who runs the world. Nothing drives the message home more clearly than when a person undergoes suffering. Pain draws a person closer to the realization that what happens in this world is not in our hands. The recipient of suffering learns a penetrating lesson from his hardship.

Yet wouldn’t we envy anyone who found a way to internalize this belief without suffering? The Chafetz Chaim indicates just the solution.

In his sefer (l55) the Chafetz Chaim quotes Chazal, "If one does not respond to his natural tendency to react when being insulted, he is forgiven for all his sins".(l56)

When one has been ridiculed, he should immediately contemplate what he has to gain by not responding. He should imagine for a moment the fire of Gehennom which is sixty times hotter than our hottest fire. Of the seven chambers in Gehennom, each chamber is sixty times hotter than the one before it. This is not a very pleasant destiny to consider.

The Ramban writes that one second of Gehennom is worse than all the misery that Iyov (Job) experienced during his lifetime.

In light of the realization that one’s deeds most likely do not exempt him of any retribution, one should rejoice in remaining silent. After all it seems an easy exchange for the atonement of all his sins.

After Avsholom seized the kingdom from Dovid Hamelech, Dovid and his men were free to flee. As they were running, Shimi ben Gayro threw stones at Dovid and cursed him.

Dovid’s general Avishai asked Dovid, "Why should this dead dog curse the king? Only give me permission, and I will remove his head."

Dovid replied: "Do not do anything against my wishes. I want him to be left alone. I realize that any embarrassment which I endured was preordained by Hashem. Shimi ben Gayro is merely his messenger." (l58)

Chazal tell us that Dovid was rewarded immensely for accepting these insults without retaliation.

The ability not to react to insults stems from believing that Hashem controls the world ,and that everything that happens to a person is for his own good.

This is the attitude which suffering reinforces. When one displays this attituded by keeping silent, there is no need for other unpleasant means of reinforcement.

The Chafetz Chaim (l59) also calls our attention to the behavior of those imprisoned in the Russian jails during the early nineteen hundreds.

When the victims are cross-examined by the police, the strong -willed neither confess, nor do they say a word that would incriminate them. Even though they are brutally beaten and disgraced, they refuse to admit any guilt.

Although longevity is not guaranteed, they are prepared to endure physical torture in order to live a little longer.

Certainly, those who speak Loshon Hora should be ashamed of themselves. It is impossible to fathom the great suffering coming to them for each forbidden word they have uttered. With a little self-control they could enjoy everlasting rewards. Instead they choose to give up these rewards without even being forced to do so.!

The End of the Golus

The parsha concludes with the laws of giving contributions to the Bais Hamikdosh. This alludes to the fact that no matter what we must first undergo, eventually, the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt.

The Gemmara (l60) relates that the Roman general Aspasyonus besieged Yerushalayim for three years. The people of Yerushalayim were starving. In such dire straits, they could no longer withstand the enemy.

Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai escaped from the city to try and save the people. He went to Aspasyonus and found favor in his eyes. Aspasyonus offered to fulfill any request.

Rav Yochanan found himself in a crucial dilemma. If he would ask him to pardon the Jews, he might explode in anger and refuse him completely. After all, he had spent the last three years doing nothing but trying to conquer the city. (Returning home without reporting that he had conquered Yerushalayim would be too much of a disgrace for the rosho.)

Rav Yochanan decided to ask for only as much as he was likely to be granted.

But what of the possibility, however slim, that his request to save Yerushalayim would be granted? Could he take the responsibility for its destruction and the annihilation of most of its inhabitants by not taking this chance?

This is a question in halacha. May one jeopardize the lives of certain Jews in order to save others?

Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was a great scholar ,and decided to limit his request to what would definitely be granted.

With his wisdom, he saved all the Torah scholars in the Yavne region, and a few other important individuals.

The scholars of Yavne kept our nation alive by ensuring that the chain of the Mesorah would not be broken.

Who knows what would have happened if Rav Yochanan had angered Aspasyonus by requesting a total pardon? Where would Klal Yisroel be today if Yavne had been destroyed?

Only a great Torah scholar like Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was capable of making such a decision.

How did Rav Yochanan merit to become such a great Torah scholar? The Gemmara relates that it was his purity of speech.(l61)

The Gemmara illustrates this with the following episode:

When Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was still a student, he was sitting with another student before their teacher Hillel. Both disciples voiced the same question .

"Why is it permissible to pick pure olives, and put them into contaminated vessels?" asked the other student.

Rav Yochanan asked ,"Why is it permissible to place pure olives in vessels which are not pure?"

Hillel took note of Rav Yochanan’s care to pose the question in a more refined manner. He then said, "I am confident that Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai will excel in his learning and render the halachic decisions for Klal Yisroel.

Just as our constraints throughout Golus were lessened in the merit of Rav Yochanan’s pure speech, (we have Da’as Torah to guide us) so shall we merit the ultimate redemption because of our own pure speech.

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