Shortly after the passing of Holocaust survivor Rav Avraham Steiner at the age of 96 in Bnei Brak, Rav Moshe Greineman related the following story that he heard at the shivah.
Rabbi Steiner served in a German labor camp during the Second World War. In that awful place, every evening, when the ragtag group of laborers would return to the camp from their tortuous work, the SS commander would call out the name of one of the Jews. As the man would approach, the evil German would shoot him once in the head and another innocent Jewish life would be snuffed out by a Nazi. This would happen every day.
One evening, the murderer looked at the list of inmates and called out the name Wolfgang Cohen. Not wanting to die, Mr. Cohen pointed to Avrohom Steiner and called out to him, “Wolfgang Cohen, why don’t you go up? Your name was called!”
In the seconds that Rabbi Steiner was thinking about what to do, the posuk of “Shomer piv uleshono shomer mitzaros nafsho” (Mishlei 21:23) came to mind. He decided that he would not reveal to the Nazi that Cohen was looking to save his own life and forcing him to go instead of him. He would answer the call of the Nazi and the rest would be up to Hashem.
He recited Shema Yisroel and headed for the spot where the Nazi would kill the Jews every night. Suddenly, the Nazi called out, “Cohen, halt. Every night I kill one Jew and spare the rest. Tonight, I’m doing it differently. Tonight, I am sparing the person whose name I called out and killing the rest of the group.”
And thus, Rav Steiner lived, while Cohen and the rest died. He was “shomer piv.” He was able to control himself from tattling on Cohen, and he lived a long and fruitful life in Bnei Brak, reaching the age of 96, the numerical equivalent of the word “piv.”
His ability to control his speech granted him life – a very long life.
From where did he derive the strength to be shomer piv to such a degree?
We are currently in the last stages of the final golus. While earlier exiles were caused by the sins of avodah zorah, giluy arayos and shefichas domim, the current golus is caused by lashon hora and sinas chinom.
To merit redemption from this golus, we have to uproot those sins from our midst.
What causes these sins? Why are they so rampant in our world? Why can’t we rid ourselves of them?
Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover writes (Ohr Torah 27) that the sins of lashon hora and sinas chinom are caused by bittul Torah. The remedy for them is, as the posuk says, “Marpeh lashon eitz chaim – The study of Torah heals the sins of the mouth” (Mishlei 15:4).
Individuals speak ill of others, dislike others, and despise their very existence for no reason. Today, hate is so prevalent. You don’t need a reason to hate someone. If someone davens differently than you, you hate him. If his kids go to a school you don’t like, you hate him. If he drives the wrong car, you hate him. If his beard is too long or too short, or he doesn’t have one at all, you hate him.
Hate. Hate. Hate. It’s all over. It’s rampant.
Why? Where does it come from?
The simple explanation is that the urge – nay, the need – to speak lashon hora is brought on by our need for respect. In order to earn the respect of others, people mock other people and tell tales about them. By lowering the respect people have for others, we imagine that they will have more respect for us. It is a silly theory, but it is common practice.
People seem to be saying, “Don’t judge me and find me lacking. Love me and look at the many deficiencies of the other fellow.” Jealousy, middos ra’os, and the need to be popular come into play as people speak lashon hora.
Sadly, they think that they will be happier, more satisfied and respected if they cause people to look down upon others. They don’t realize that it is not a zero-sum game in which they gain when the other person loses.
In fact, each person has a different mission in life and is given different abilities and blessings that are required to accomplish their mission. Happiness and satisfaction are brought on by working towards our individual missions and thereby improving ourselves and the world. Negating the accomplishments, possessions and attributes of other people is of no help in realizing our own missions or in acquiring happiness and earning respect.
Believing that what you have is from Hashem helps you appreciate what you’ve been blessed with. There is then no need to ridicule or be jealous of others.
When my dear friend, Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, was transferred to a New York area federal prison after his egregious 27-year sentence was handed down, he received a lot of mail. His case had been highlighted, as we know, and the obvious injustice of the sentence caused many people to reach out to him.
While he would receive dozens of letters daily, the majority of the inmates, who got minimal mail, were angry at the newcomer. They were furious that he got so much mail, while they got barely anything. They even told him that they weren’t getting mail because he was. Then, one day, he explained it to them.
He said to the inmates, “The reason you aren’t getting mail is because nobody took an envelope and wrote your address upon it. These letters aren’t addressed to you, and even were I to distribute these envelopes to all of you, when you opened them, you wouldn’t be able to understand what the people are writing. Many are written in Hebrew and Yiddish, and besides, reading that my mother loves me would have no emotional value to you.
“Each person has their own mail. Fretting about the amount I receive will not help you at all.”
It is not only his mail that we shouldn’t be jealous of. The same goes for every possession a person has. He has it because Hashem put his address on it. He has it because Hashem decided he should have it to be able to fulfill his mission in life. Being jealous of another person’s possessions makes as much sense as being jealous of the amount of mail received by a poor, helpless, incarcerated person.
Emunah and bitachon are strengthened by the study of Torah and mussar. Thus, we can say that bittul Torah leads to lashon hora. As helpful as the programs and lessons about lashon hora and sinas chinom are, if we don’t get to the root of the problem, if we don’t increase our Torah study, if we don’t strengthen our belief in Hashgocha protis, the problem will persist.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Pri Tzaddik, Rosh Chodesh Nissan) says that Moshe Rabbeinu told Hashem that appealing to Paroh would be of no use. “Aich yishmo’eini Pharoh,” Paroh will not listen, he explained, because “va’ani aral sefosoyim.”
Although Hashem, who is “som peh l’adam,” assured Moshe Rabbeinu that He would repair his speech defect and Paroh would accept what he says, Moshe explained his reticence in approaching Paroh, because he was “aral sefosoyim,” referring to the klipah of tumah in the hearts of the Jewish people, which caused their disconnect from Torah and an inability to listen to Moshe.
This is what he meant when he said, “Hein Bnei Yisroel lo shome’u eilay ve’aich yishmo’eini Pharoh va’ani aral sefosoyim.” Orlah refers to the yeitzer hora. Moshe complained that the yeitzer hora was blocking the Jewish people from hearing his voice.
When Hashem told Moshe, “Hachodesh hazeh lochem,” He gave the Jewish people the strength to inject kedusha into the month of Nissan. With the added kedusha of the month, the Jews were able to overcome the areilus. Armed with increased kedusha, they were able to return to study Torah. The combination of added kedusha and Torah did away with the “aral sefosoyim,” which was caused by the general spiritual weakness of the Bnei Yisroel.
With the areilus of Moshe’s speech no longer present, the go’el was able to speak to Paroh. Geulah was now on the horizon.
Even though everything Moshe said was as commanded by Hashem, without the added kedusha and Torah, people were unable to comprehend him.
We read in this week’s parsha, “Uvayom hashemini yimol besar orlaso” (Vayikra 12:3). The orlah of the bosor is removed by others on the eighth day of a boy’s life. However, the orlah of the heart and soul are much more difficult to remove, plus we have to do that ourselves. No one can do it for us.
It is through added kedusha that our mouths are cleansed of their sins of lashon hora and sinas chinom, and are able to speak lovingly of our fellow man and Hashem. We are able to use the gift of speech positively and sing the praises of Hashem for granting us the ability to speak and love.
Imagine a young musician blessed with a rare ability to make the keys of the piano dance. He plays beautifully, but since he is incredibly poor, he learns a trade and becomes a plumber. Even if he succeeds and becomes the most successful plumber in town, part of him is dead. There is unexpressed song inside him, and as he works on pipes and drains, he dreams of music. All day long, as he goes about his business, he thinks about music. He plays piano in his head while he repairs leaks with his blessed fingers. Perhaps nobody notices this about him, but that is because they don’t really know him.
As Klal Yisroel slaved in Mitzrayim, they were a nation with a song trapped inside of them. They were unable to express themselves. The avdus and tumah locked their ideas and attitudes inside of them. Areilus jumbled their abilities.
When they were redeemed and removed from avdus and tumah, their gifts of speech burst forth, along with wellsprings of kedusha and depth.
Parshas Tazria teaches us the majesty of man.
Man, unique among all creations, is blessed with speech. But he must keep it pure, for impure speech results in the immediate and obvious punishment of tzoraas.
The punishment for this aveirah is unique in that it causes deformities on the sinner’s body, home and clothing, for the person who speaks improperly betrays his soul and demonstrates a lack of belief that everything that transpires in this world is directed by the Creator.
A person who has proper emunah and bitachon is unfazed when another person seems to be more successful than he is, for he knows that everyone receives what Hashem determines he should get. Thus, there is no room for jealousy, hatred or speaking ill of others.
Therefore, someone who engages in such behavior is struck by a punishment that directly demonstrates that Hashem watches over and monitors every person. When a person sins in these matters, he is separated from the community and given time to ponder what caused the nega of tzoraas. He realizes that it came from Hashem, who provides for all of mankind, and recognizes that his sin was caused by a lack of faith in that regard. When he repents and accepts that Hashem cares for all, his nega is healed and he can return to properly serving Hashem and utilizing the gift of speech.
The majesty and supremacy of man are arrived at by responsibly using each word and understanding its potential to build worlds.
Each one of us is a scion of majesty and greatness. Every word we utter must be precious to us. Everything we say should be measured and clearly thought through before being spoken. Our dikduk b’mitzvos needs to be matched by meticulousness in the words used to express an idea and to explain deep Torah thoughts and concepts.
With emunah and bitachon guiding our lives, we live the way a Jew should live, remembering what should be important to us and that the material is immaterial when it comes to living a Torah life. We need to concern ourselves with Hashem’s wishes, cognizant of the fact that we are in golus, never succumbing to the areilus that overtakes those who lose sight of the fact that we have to be working towards the geulah.
Parshas Tazria reminds us not to allow the tumah of our surroundings to influence us, but to live lives of kedusha and taharah, dedicated to dikduk b’lashon, kiyum hamitzvos and limud haTorah.
Why, people ask, does this publication report news? Because we don’t want our neshamos sullied by flipping through the pages of newspapers and magazines. Media sinks to the gutter as they report all sensational and irrelevant details, dragging down all who read and discuss what passes nowadays for news.
We don’t want to be reading lashon hora. We don’t want to be reading tumah. We want to maintain lives of kedusha, keeping ourselves on a level at which shomrei Torah umitzvos belong. To think and act properly, we have to maintain a distance from material that sullies our neshamos.
In Golus Mitzrayim, the culture was so depraved that its influence caused the Bnei Yisroel to sink to the lowest levels of tumah. In the golus in which we currently find ourselves, the culture and media have been steadily sinking to lower levels. By following their lead and discussing the matters they purvey to us, we can become tomei.
To be deserving of redemption, we must increase our devotion to Torah, so that the areilus that hardens souls and causes engagement in lashon hora and sinas chinom will fade, and soon we will be able to hear Eliyohu Hanovi telling us, “Higi’a zeman geulaschem.”