It is amazing how the Torah manages to find the strangest, and yet somehow the most powerful means of healing and transforming humanity. In the Torah this week, we learn of the strange, leprosy-like disease called Tzara’at, and the rituals for its healing and purification. We learn about the rituals for the final purification of one who has recovered from Tzara’at: the priest takes two birds. One bird is sacrificed, the other bird is set free. The whole affair seems so very strange and mysterious. Why so much attention to the disease of Tzara’at? And why are these birds used to purify people from this disease?
In order to begin to unpack this ritual, we must remember how our ancient sages taught us to understand the disease of Tzara’at: that it was an affliction that represented evil speech. Through slander, gossip, through any kind of words that brought ill-will and violence against others, one became afflicted with this disease. Our skin, our clothes, even our houses would erupt in a snow-white rash that reflected Divine displeasure because of our hurtful words. Probably the most famous victim of Tzara’at is Miriam, the sister of Moses who, in the book of Numbers, speaks out publicly against her brother Moses because he married a Cushite woman. Her public slander of her brother’s marriage immediately brings on Divine retribution, and she is suddenly covered in this white and scaly disease.
Very strange indeed! And then there is the matter of this healing ritual with the two birds. Why is one slaughtered and the other set free? Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that birds are the perfect choice in this ritual because they are “mfatfetin tamid b’tzifzuf kol,” they are “chattering constantly in their chirping voices.” Birds, in their way, never stop talking! The Sfat Emet, a more recent commentary, explains the meaning of this ritual exactly: one bird is slaughtered because that bird represents the idle prattling that has led to the hateful and hurtful words in the first place. The second bird is set free, however “lehachin hapeh v’lashon l’hotzi bahem divrei Torah,” “to prepare the mouth and the tongue to bring forth words of Torah [only].”[i] In other words, there are two kinds of speech: there is our mindless prattle that we use day to day that often leads to gossip and slander; and then there is the kind of speech that we rarely see—words used for the sake of the holy, words used to build up others, words used to heal the world itself rather than to destroy it.
There is a story told of how Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshischa, was ordered by his teacher, Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Yid HaKodesh, to make a journey to a distant and unremarkable village. When Simcha Bunem asked his master why he was being ordered to this little town in the middle of nowhere, his teacher remained silent.
So, Reb Simcha Bunem set out, accompanied by several of his own Hasidim, on the long journey to the little town. The sky had already turned to dusk by the time they arrived at their destination. Because the town had no inn, Reb Simchah Bunem ordered his coachmen to stop at the first cottage they saw. He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his students. When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner, the man replied “Of course you are welcome. I just need to let you know that I am not serving a milchig, or dairy meal this evening. Tonight, I am serving a fleishig, or meat meal.”
Instantly, the Hasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of Kashrut. Who was the shochet (the butcher) in town, they demanded to know. Was the meat “glatt,” or free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted sufficiently to draw out all traces of blood, as was required by Halakhah, Jewish law? The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.
They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man dressed as a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe. “My dear Hasidim,” the beggar said. “With regard to what goes into your mouths, I see you are scrupulous. Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all.”
When Reb Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew the reason for his journey. He nodded respectfully to the beggar, thanked the householder for his concern, and returned to the wagon , saying to his students, “Come, we are now ready to return home to Peshischa.” [ii]
So what, indeed, was it that Reb Simcha Bunem understood through that beggar’s chastising words? After all, what, in fact, was wrong with the questions the Hasidim were asking to the householder? Is it not proper for Jews to be concerned that their food is kosher? Is it not a sign of their impassioned love of Torah and serving God properly that one Jew should ask another Jew about the meat so that no one transgresses--God forbid!—any of God’s laws?
As a matter of fact, we can wonder the very same thing about Miriam when she spoke against Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman. Miriam was a great woman, a leader of the people. The Torah doesn’t present us with specifics, but we can surmise that she had her good reasons to be angry at Moses’ choice of wife. Clearly, she passionately believed that he had done wrong by taking that particular woman as a wife, and something needed to be done about it and, as a woman of influence, she spoke what she believed to be right!
And yet, God struck her down, and she became riddled with disease. And similarly, those Hasidim, with all their bombarding questions, were whisked away from that home, eternally chastised because of their careless words. In both instances, despite their good intentions, these people were speaking with impure speech. Despite their desire only to speak words of Torah they, in fact, desecrated everything that the Torah stands for through their words! So if that is the case, how can we ever know if our words truly are the good kind of speech or the evil kind of speech?!
Earlier in the Torah, we learn that when someone sees an outbreak of Tzara’at on their body, “V’huva el Aharon HaKohein o el echad mibanav hakohanim.” “They must be brought to Aharon, the High Priest, or to one of his sons, the priests.” It’s rather a strange instruction. We know that all priests were trained in how to recognize Tzara’at. So why does the Torah make a point of saying that the afflicted person had to be brought specifically to Aharon or to his sons? We know, of course, that Aharon was a very special figure in the Torah. Aharon, first and foremost, was a beloved man. All the Israelites simply loved him. When Aharaon died, they mourned him longer than Moses himself. We also know that Aharon was a peacemaker: he was “Ohev Shalom v’rodef Shalom,” “He loved peace and pursued peace,” “Ohev et habriot umekarvan leTorah,” “He loved all of God’s creatures and brought them close to Torah.”
Finally, we also know that Aharon was a man who understood everything about proper speech. It was Aharon who spoke on behalf of Moses before Pharaoh, after all. Almost always, Aharon knew when to speak and when to remain silent. And when he did open his mouth, his intention was always to spread love of God, of Torah, and of peace between human beings. It seems that he was constitutionally incapable of idle prattling. Of course someone stricken down because of their evil speech should go before Aharon, to be in the presence of one who knows all how to use our speech properly!
Most significantly, Aaron knew how to use his speech to create peace among human beings. The Midrash Avot deRabbi Natan tells us: “How did Aaron love and pursue peace? When he saw two men engaged in a quarrel, he would go and sit down with one of them and say to him: "Consider what your friend is saying! He is broken hearted; he rends his clothes and cries out: 'Woe unto me! How shall I face my friend? I am ashamed, for it is I who wronged and sinned against him!"' Aaron would sit with this man until he had removed all ill feelings from his heart. Then Aaron would go and sit with the other man and say exactly the same thing to him until he expelled the enmity from his heart, too. When the two quarreling men eventually met, they would embrace and kiss one another.”
In this teaching, we see why Aharon is central in our understanding the nature of right speech verses wrong speech. When Aharon sat down with the each man, was he, in fact, telling the Truth about his fellow? Was the other party rending his clothes in guilt over wronging his fellow? No! It’s not what happened! It’s a white lie, it’s an untruth in the service of a higher Truth! And herein is the secret to right speech: When it comes to using our words, our speech, the ways of peace take precedence over the ways of Truth. To put it another way, we must always bend the truth toward the ways of peace, and away from the ways of discord.
Just open the newspapers on any day if you want to see how much we’re not understanding this teaching: Just look at the Americans who refer to the president as ‘Barack Hussein Obama.’ Yes, it’s true: that’s his full name. But that choice of words is diseased, it’s Tzara’at, because it bends the Truth toward the ways of quarrel and ill-will. That simple insertion of a middle name slanders a human being by connecting him up with Muslim extremists in popular conscousness.
Look also at how people approach the debate over healthcare in this country. There are opponents of healthcare who feel so strongly about their cause that they say that the healthcare bill is the end of our cherished American value of Freedom! Whatever your politics on this issue, it’s clear that this kind of rhetoric is about making use of words for the sake of what some people believe—at the expense of those who disagree with them! Again, speech is being used to bend Truth in the direction of discord and incivility instead of bending in the direction of peace and finding common ground to solve national problems.
Tragically, the disease of Tzara’at is rearing its head all too often within the American Jewish community, as we struggle over the future of
People often ask why God just doesn’t strike down people with a white scaly infection anymore in response to our words. The answer is that that infection has crawled way past our skin, way past our clothes, and way past our homes—it now infects the very foundations of our society. Every one of us, and everything in our society is white and scaly with the scourge of tongues that have bent the truth to be used in the service of violence and ill-will and slander. We’re all guilty and diseased by now.But the lesson of Aharon and his wise and loving use of words still remain. That other bird, the bird of words used wisely, still flies free in the world for us to discover. The world each of us longs for begins with our tongues, with each word we choose. The power of our speech is the power to use the Truth in any way we choose. The Torah is not asking us not to speak our Truth, but instead to use it with the greatest of care and awe and wisdom and love. The Torah wants us to understand that none of us can ever know the Absolute Truth, so we will always only perceive an imperfect or ‘bent’ aspect of the Truth. The Truth can always bend in either direction of any argument, so let us bend it wisely! Next time we are impassioned about our cause, let us pause before the words come out of our mouths, before the cameras and the newspapers record our words, before our speech falls on the ears of those who will use our words as incitement to hate and fear and do violence. Let us instead bend the Truth in the service of Peace, and use our words to “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom,” to love peace and to pursue peace, “ohev et habriot umekarvan laTorah,” to bring love to our fellow human beings, and to bring them to Torah, to wisdom, and to peace.