Dedicated for a Refuah Shelemah for Rachel bat Sarah, Mrs. Shellie Rahmey, from her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
A Woman’s Extra Kedusha
The parasha begins with laws of birth and that which is tameh—impure. Rabbi Frand points out a very interesting observation in Gemara Nidda that there are three partners in the creation of a baby: Hashem, the mother, and the father. As a woman carries a baby for nine months from conception to the final stages of giving birth, she is on a very high level of kedusha-holiness. In essence, she becomes a partner with Hashem in creating a newborn baby! When Chava gave birth to the first baby, she said, “Kaniti ish et Hashem.” She felt that she was a direct partner with Hashem in creating her son, so she named him Kayin. This is one reason why women are at a higher level than men. But once the woman gives birth, at the precise moment that the baby leaves her womb, she goes back to becoming an ordinary person again.
What is tum’ah—impurity? The Kuzari explains that tum’ah is the void that occurs when kedusha leaves a place. When a baby is born, the woman’s extra kedusha leaves, which creates a void where tum’ah sets in automatically. According to the Torah, a woman is tameh for seven days after giving birth to a son, and fourteen days after giving birth to a girl. The difference in the days of impurity is that a son is “a creation,” but a girl is a “creation that’s also a potential creator.” Because of this, there’s much more kedusha when a baby girl is born. When all that kedusha leaves the woman’s body, it creates a bigger void than the birth of a boy (who has less kedusha), so there are more days of tum’ah.
Last week, in Parashat Shemini, we learned how careful we have to be about what food enters our mouths. In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we learn how careful we have to be about what words exit our mouths. Speech, too, needs to be “kosher.”
Our Sages have pointed out that humans are the only beings who are blessed with the power of speech, and with that power comes the responsibility of proper speech. Our Sages link the disease of tzara’at, loosely defined as leprosy, to lashon hara—the act of speaking negatively about others. Hashem sends this disease as a punishment and a warning to stop saying bad things about others.
The Torah explains that the tzara’at will first arrive on the walls of one’s home, then it will spread to one’s clothing, and lastly, it will appear on one’s skin. The tzara’at comes to those three articles because they all act as a person’s protection: his house protects his family, his clothes protect his body, and his skin protects his organs. The disease comes in that order as an escalating warning to give him a chance to stop speaking lashon hara. If someone has tzara’at he must remain secluded from others for at least seven days, until the kohen declares him pure.
Tzara’at is a nega—plague which is spelled nun-gimel-ayin. The word ayin means both the letter ayin, as well as “eye.” If you move the letter ayin to the beginning of the word nega, it reads oneg—pleasure, which is the opposite of plague. This is to say, that if one looks upon others with ayin tova— a good eye, it will be good for him and will lead to oneg. On the other hand, if one looks at people in a negative light and speaks lashon hara about others, then he will get the nega, and the plague of tzara’at will come to his home, his clothes, and ultimately his skin.
The Snake’s Split Tongue
We learned in Parashat Bereshit that the first case of lashon hara was when the snake told Chava that she could eat from the etz hadaat—Tree of Knowledge. In doing so, the snake spoke lashon hara against Hashem. We saw how Hashem punished the snake by making him crawl on his belly for the rest of his days, condemned to eat the dust of the earth. Our Sages teach us that Hashem also gave the snake dotted skin, a form of tzara’at, and a split tongue.
The split tongue is significant because the snake used its tongue to speak wickedly and create a rift. In this case, he told Chava that it was okay to eat from the etz hadaat — which went directly against Hashem’s commandment not to eat from the tree — and this caused a rift between Adam and Hashem. If you look at all disputes, either between a husband and wife or between business partners and so on, they all originate from lashon hara, where one speaks ill of the other.
We’re all aware that lashon hara is a terrible sin, yet we continue to do it. The question is, why are we so compelled to speak lashon hara when we know how bad it is? One answer is that lashon hara stems from our own insecurity because by speaking negatively about others, we think we’re elevating ourselves. The remedy for not speaking lashon hara is to focus only on the good in people, and then we will have no need to make negative comments!
Feathers in the Wind
There’s a parable about a man who spoke lashon hara all his life. Toward the end of his life, he asked the rabbi if there was a way for him to do teshuvah. The rabbi told him to take a feather pillow to the top of the Empire State Building, rip it open, and let all the feathers fly out into the wind and blow all over the streets. The man did as he was told.
He then reported to the rabbi and asked, “Is that it?”
The rabbi said, “Oh, I forgot to mention — now that you’ve scattered the feathers into the wind and all over the streets, you must go and pick them all up!”
The man protested, “That’s impossible!”
The rabbi answered, “That’s exactly what teshuvah is for lashon hara — impossible.”
The scattered feathers — impossible to take back —are a symbol of the negative speech which is impossible to take back once it has been spread. People who engage in lashon hara have no control over the effects of their words. They do not know where the words will land, they cannot track the progress of those negative words, and they don’t know what damage the words have done, or whose reputation or happiness they have destroyed. Lashon hara spreads out in many directions which the original speaker can never foresee or know. And, most importantly, once you let out the negative speech, it is impossible to take it back or unsay what you have said, and thus you cannot make amends for all the damage you have done!
Lashon Hara in the Age of Smartphones
The Chofetz Chaim Foundation published a true story about how quickly lashon hara can impact a person’s life, especially in the age of smartphones. One hectic Friday in Brooklyn, community men and women were doing their usual last-minute pre-Shabbat preparations by scurrying like frantic mice from one store to another.
Rabbi R. was at the local butcher, picking up a gorgeous rack of lamb for Shabbat. “That'll be $132 please,” the butcher said. Unfortunately for Rabbi R., there was a nosey woman behind him, and her ears perked up at the unusually large sum for an unusually fancy piece of meat that the rabbi paid for. She whipped out her iPhone, snapped a picture, and started frantically texting her friend.
“OMG! I just saw Rabbi R. pay $132 for a rack of lamb for Shabbat!” she texted her friend Chana, who quickly posted the “breaking news” on Instagram. 686 followers instantly saw the post and started commenting. Rabbi R. was a modest rabbi at the local yeshivah, and speculation was rapidly getting out of hand.
“We can barely afford chicken for Shabbat, and this guy’s buying a rack of lamb? Something's not right here!” Sarah soon tweeted. “Should we speak with the school Principal about this?” Michael replied.
“I went to school with Rabbi R., and I always felt there was something weird about him,” Moshe texted. In an instant, the attack on Rabbi R.'s questionable purchase transformed into an attack on Rabbi R. himself. “I was set up with his son for a shidduch, and Baruch Hashem, it didn't work out,” Rina replied.
Like wildfire, the scandal was spreading fast. Phone calls were being made from New York to Los Angeles and Miami. “On Monday morning, we need to meet and get rid of this guy. He’s obviously doing something fishy to have so much money,” Jimmy posted. “My sister's brother-in-law's next-door neighbor's mother lives two houses down from him, and she says that family lovessss food! A little too much if you ask me!!” Jaclyn texted.
In 20 minutes, the lashon hara reached massive proportions. It got so out of control that a woman from Los Angeles actually called Rabbi R.'s wife and complained to her, demanding to know why they were eating racks of lamb on Shabbat. The rabbi’s wife was really upset when her husband finally returned home 10 minutes later.
On the way home, however, Rabbi R. made a stop at a friend's house and dropped off the meat that he asked him to pick up for their daughter’s sheva berachot the following night. He thanked him gratefully for saving him so much time and paid Rabbi R. for his order. “Of course! I’m always happy to do a favor for friends,” Rabbi R. happily responded, as he headed home empty-handed.
By the time he got home, his wife was flustered and upset by all the phone calls and accusatory texts she had to deal with. Rabbi R. was only out of the house for 30 minutes. During that time, his reputation has been completely ruined. In only 30 minutes, hundreds of people found out that he picked up a rack of lamb at the butcher. In only 30 minutes, his career had been destroyed potentially beyond repair. In only 30 minutes, he no longer had any friends. The worst part was that it was a complete misunderstanding, that he was, in fact, doing a chessed.
Lashon hara is bad enough when it’s done from person to person. It is as deadly as a gun. But lashon hara through social media and texting is like an atom bomb. The damage is irreparable. There are two lessons we learn from this. First, always think twice before judging a situation. We never know all the factors involved, even if we personally witness it happening. Second, never share questionable information about anyone, not over the phone, and certainly not online. It could literally be destroying someone's life.
A Plague Turns into a Blessing
The passuk says, “When you come to Land of Canaan which I give to you for a possession, and I will put a plague of tzara’at in a house of the land of your possession (Vayikra 14:34).” Rashi quotes the famous Midrash Rabbah that this was, in fact, good news for the Jewish people.
Why would the appearance of tzara’at on their houses be good news? If tzara’at is found on the walls of the house, one is required to demolish it! How can that be good news?
The answer, as Rabbi Frand brings down from Rashi, is that the inhabitants of Canaan hid great wealth and treasures in the walls of their houses. If a person would get a plague of tzara’at on his house and follow the halacha of tearing it down, he would find a fortune inside. Therefore, this was good news.
Many of us have, no doubt, been bothered by this, asking the following question: If G-d wants me to receive a present, this is a very strange way for Him to go about giving it. Tzara’at comes as punishment for a sin. The Talmud (Eruchin 16a) lists a number of sins for which negaim come. So which way is it? Is tzara’at coming for a sin or is it coming as a way to provide a treasure?
The answer is that with the nega of tzara’at on one’s house, which is the first level of punishment for lashon hara, if a person then responds and rectifies his ways, he can turn that punishment into a merit. Therefore, it is appropriate for this correct response to merit the treasures that the inhabitants of Canaan left behind.
May we all be careful with the words that come out of our mouths. Words can be very dangerous; they can break up families and cause irreversible harm! May we all strive to cast a good eye on others and to avoid speaking lashon hara, and thus protect all of Klal Yisrael from the severe penalties that come from speaking ill of one another! And may we be able to turn this plague around and find the treasure of Mashiach who’s waiting just around the corner! Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
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