Friday, Jul 19, 2024

Our Words Define Us

On Pesach, we celebrated the birth of our nation, the moments when we stood together to become amo Yisroel, His beloved People. Since that time, we have shared a destiny, as a family walking along a common path, bound to each other.

Pesach leads us into the Sefirah period with its focus on tikkun hamiddos. And this week’s parsha is the bridge between Pesach and Sefirah. The parsha discusses the affliction of tzora’as and the necessity to remove the afflicted person from among the community and place him in isolation for weekly periods.

Bodod yeisheiv.

The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:1) teaches that tzora’as is brought on by engagement in any one of seven anti-social characteristics: haughty eyes, a tongue that speaks falsehood, hands that spill innocent blood, a heart that plots bad thoughts, feet that run to do evil, a liar/one who testifies falsely, and, the worst of them all, someone who causes disputes to break out between people. This is accomplished through spreading slander and lies, motzie sheim ra and lashon hora. Thus, the Torah refers to the person with tzora’as as a “metzora,” for the word is formulated from the words motzie sheim ra.

Someone who speaks lashon hora is punished with tzora’as. The question is why. How does the punishment fit the crime?

In this world, there are four elementary forms, each one on a higher level than the one below it. They are domeim, tzomei’ach, chai and medaber, the inert, such as stone and dirt; that which grows, such as grass and trees; that which is alive, such as animals; and, above them all, man, who is granted the gift of speech.

The ability to speak allows us to effectively communicate with each other. With speech, we can learn, grow, develop, study Torah, engage in mitzvos, and be part of a cohesive social fabric. Thus, Targum Onkelos famously says that the words in Bereishis that state that man was alive, “Vayehi adam lenefesh chaya,” indicate that “vehavas b’adam ruach memalela,” man was given the power of speech. The ability to speak gave man his spirit and life.

Life is that ability to connect with others – the experience of joining others, interacting with them, and using words to convey emotion. The breath invested into each word is the stuff of life itself.

Man was bestowed with the gift of speech to enable him to live an exalted life, connected with Hashem and Klal Yisroel. One who uses that gift instead to sow dissention and separate people from each other is therefore isolated from everyone else and locked away.

Bodod. Alone. Because he rejected the gift of life and used his words to create division and hate, he is forced to become withdrawn from society, deprived of the essential joy of life and social interaction.

We received the Torah when we were united, k’ish echod beleiv echod, and all of Klal Yisroel became areivim zeh bozeh, interconnected. Yisroel v’Oraisa v’Kudsha Brich Hu chad hu. We are connected to each other, to the Torah, and to Hashem, as one.

Sefer Derech Mitzvosecha (Issur Sinas Yisroel, Mitzvas Ahavas Yisroel) discusses the arvus that connects all the Jewish people. He quotes the Arizal, who, simply put, says that all of Klal Yisroel is one body, with each person being a different limb of the single entity. We are all intertwined with each other. He quotes Rav Chaim Vital that the Arizal would recite vidui on behalf of sinners, because all of Israel is one body.

It is known that the Arizal would say before davening (the nusach is brought in certain siddurim), that he accepts upon himself the mitzva to love every Jew, because he felt that in order for his tefillah to be accepted, it had to be combined with all of Klal Yisroel’s tefillos, so that the prayers would rise as one together. If he disliked someone, it would be as if the body is incomplete. Missing a limb, it would be a baal mum and could not accomplish its goal.

Hatred causes dissention and disconnects people from each other.

One who recognizes that we are all linked with each other and each one of us is comprised of parts of other Jews is not encumbered by pettiness or jealousy. Those who are cognizant of that which connects us are conscious of the fact that our neshamos emanate from the same place, beneath the Kisei Hakavod. When they view another Jew, they feel the deep connection, unfettered by externals that distract the rest of us.

Man is made up of chomer and tzurah, the chomer being the physical and mundane, while the tzurah is the spiritual. The real person is the tzurah, literally his image, his depth and spirituality, which are wrapped in the outer chomer. A person who is caught up with his chomer is wrapped up with the superficial and is missing out on the greatness and essense of life.

A person of chomer, who lacks in tzurah, rejects unity, as he is shallow, with no appreciation for what lies at the root of everything. He becomes a baal lashon hora, a hate-monger, resents other people’s success and popularity. He cannot live comfortably with others, because other people’s possessions arouse envy in him. He is unable to be with them. Rejecting unity and suffering his own punishment, he is forced to sit alone.

Tzora’as forces the person consumed with exterior impressions to confront physical imperfections that are brought on by his spiritual inadequacies, as he ponders the essence of his existence.

The posuk in Bereishes (2:18) states, “Lo tov heyos ha’adam levado.” As Hashem was creating the world, He said that it is not good for man to be alone and He fashioned a partner for him. Loneliness is not healthy. Man must be involved with other people and not enveloped in himself without social contact. In fact, medical studies indicate that people who maintain friendships and engage with others live longer and are healthier.

The purveyor of lashon hora, hotza’as sheim ra and rechilus divides people, bringing on loneliness and ill feelings. His punishment fits the crime, as he is left in solitary confinement.

Rav Yisroel Hager of Vizhnitz regularly sits with a gabbai to go through the pile of simcha invitations that arrive at his home. The rebbe recently paused after reading an invitation to the wedding of a girl whose mother passed away not long before.

He asked the gabbai to mark the date and let him know when the wedding would take place. As the wedding day approached, the mechutonim went to the rebbe for the traditional brocha. When they left, the rebbe asked the gabbai to let him know when the wedding ended. He wanted to be informed of when the families would leave the hall, regardless of the time.

On the appointed day, in the wee hours of the morning, the gabbai gingerly knocked on the door and informed the rebbe that the mitzvah tantz had concluded and the families were on their way home.

Accompanied by the gabbai, the rebbe left his home and walked through the quiet streets, as he headed to the apartment of the kallah’s father. The rebbe knocked on the door, which was opened by the stunned chossid.

The rebbe asked if he might come in for a cup of tea. The rebbe sat down and began speaking to the man about the wedding. How had it worked out? Did all the guests come? Was the food good? How was the band? Did things go according to schedule?

The chossid found his voice, answering the rebbe’s questions and discussing each part of the wedding in great detail. The rebbe listened closely, asking more questions, before offering his fondest wishes and returning home.

As they left, the gabbai asked the rebbe why he had gone to visit the baal simcha and taken such intense interest in the wedding. The rebbe explained, “Loneliness is never easy, but at a time like that, it is especially profound. Here he is, a proud new mechutan, having just married off his daughter. The chasunah was no doubt filled with joy, but a big part of that joy is being able to come home after the event and talk about it, sharing the simcha, reminiscing about who came and who didn’t, and speaking about the things that worked out well and what was most meaningful. But this mechutan lost his wife and he has no one to discuss it with. He came home to an empty house. Alone. I can’t erase his loneliness, but this was an opportunity to be there at a moment when he really needed company.”

A person of tzurah, arvus and ruach memalela feels the soul of another.

Reb Moshe Prager described a small shul on Tel Aviv’s Rechov Allenby, not far from the roaring waves of the Mediterranean. Every evening, between Mincha and Maariv, a learned member would deliver a Gemara shiur to Holocaust survivors.

One evening, as the shiur began, a distinguished-looking visitor with glowing eyes entered the non-descript shul. The Ponovezher Rov slipped onto a worn bench and looked into the Gemara with the person next to him, as they followed the shiur.

After Maariv, the men gathered around the famed orator. He turned to them and simply said, “It was so enjoyable to sit with you. How nice it is to be with other Jews. It was so heartening to hear the song of the Gemara together with you.” And with that, he left, a broad smile on his face.

The Rov had heard that there was a group of survivors in Tel Aviv, and he traveled there to check on their needs and see if they required chizuk. As great as he was, he enjoyed their company and returned home thankful that he met them and that they were acclimating well to their new surroundings.

Great people perceive the joy in being around people. They value being part of a whole. They seek people whom they can help. For we are all one.

This week’s parsha equips us with the insight to give life to others.

There is no shortage of lonely people. They may even have spouses and large families. Some appear to have many friends. They are regular, nice, normal people of any age. But they are lonely. Talk to them.

There is no shortage of people who can use a little chizuk. Let them know you care about them.

The Alter of Slabodka is quoted as saying that respect and self-respect are integral to a person’s existence. “If a person loses all his kavod,” the Alter would say, “he can die or lose his sanity.”

One who speaks lashon hora seeks to deprive his victims of their self-worth and the respect others have for them. Someone who lacks respect for others and causes them to lose their own self-respect snuffs out their spirit.

Someone who is so wrapped up with himself that he snuffs out other people’s respect is a person who cannot live with others, Thus, “vehisgiro shivas yomim,” he is locked away by himself until he learns to respect others.

If being alone is being separated from life, then being together is being very much alive. We each carry supplies of oxygen, kind words and a genuine interest in others that can restore life to people and give them a reason to smile. With our gift of speech, we can build people.

Consideration of other people’s feelings on any level strengthens our connection not only to each other, but also to the depths of our neshamos and to Hashem.

We mourn for the students of Rabi Akiva who died during the Sefirah period. Lo nahagu kavod zeh lozeh. They didn’t treat each other respectfully and were afflicted by a plague.

Kavod – respect, validation and acknowledgment – is life itself.

May this parsha’s lessons – the significance of words, the value of being connected, the appreciation of others – fill us with the resolve to use our gift of ruach memalela correctly, elevating ourselves and our lives to new heights.

Let us stamp out hatred and division. Let us bring about peace and have respect for all.

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