In this week’s Parsha we deal primarily with Tzara’as; a plague, often mistranslated as leprosy, which arrives on a person as a result of speaking Lashon HaRa, evil speech, about another person.
Throughout Torah literature we learn about punishments for many types of sins; lashes and even capitol punishment are dealt out by courts for different offenses. We are even told that certain transgressions will generate spiritual decrees that arrive without the need of a human court to carry them out - Kares, which means to be cut off from the Jewish people – is one example.
But at first glance, the relationship between Lashon HaRa and Tzara’as is a strikingly novel exception to the rule. It comes as a result of an Aveira, a sin, that has no physical ramifications other than speech, and none the less creates a physical malady that plagues the home, one’s clothing and then eventually the body itself. It’s not like other sins because there is no action, and it’s not like other punishments because the response which is carried out by heaven is physical. We don’t see anything like this anywhere else in Judaism.
So we need to ask both how this works and why this is so. How is it possible that my speech creates a physical reality, and why does Hashem choose to send this message home specifically by Lashon HaRa?
And while we are on the subject of speech, we need to discuss its very accentuated relationship to Pesach, whose name Peh-Sach - ‘The speaking Mouth’ and whose main villain Paroh, whose name spells Peh-Rah - ‘Evil Mouth’ – is a dead giveaway to the connection.
The whole Seder-evening surrounds the theme of speech. The Mitzvah of the night is “V’Higadita L’Vincha” – And you shall tell it over to your sons. The Sfarim HaKadoshim go wild over the greatness of Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim - the commandment to tell over the story of the Exodus. We are told in the Hagadah how the greatest of our sages would tell over the story for hours upon hours. And we know that the ideal format of the Seder is a question-and-answer discussion, not simply reading the text to one’s self.
So our question returns. What is the seeming obsession with speech when it comes to Pesach?
To gain clarity, we need to spend a little time analyzing what speech is. The First Speech belongs to God. Hashem originally created the world through speech, like the Passuk says, “VaYomer Elokim Yehi Ohr” And God said let there be light – and there was light. God’s speech creates our physicality. As the Passuk says in Tehilim, ‘B’Dvar Hashem Shamayim Na’asu’ – With the Word of God were the heavens made. The Tanya explains that as long as God continually sustains the Ma’amaros, the statements with which He created the world, existence remain intact.
And we have this power as well. We too continually keep the world going with our speech. My Rebbe, Rav Yoel Rackovsky explained this with a unique understanding of King Solomon’s famous adage, “Hevel Havalim, HaKol Havel” – ‘Futility of futilities, all is futile.’ This sobering saying expresses how all things are worthless in comparison to the pursuit of Divine Closeness. But, Havel, doesn’t just mean worthless matter. It also means ‘breath’. Chazal tell us that the world only remains in existence in the merit of Hevel Tinokos Shel Beis Raban - The mutterings of young school children. There simple, honest readings of Chumash, the pure Modeh Ani, this unadulterated Havel – that’s what’s our contribution to the continuation of the universe’s being.
The Passuk in Bereishis says “VaYipach B’Apav Nishmas Chayim” – God blew a Soul of Life from Himself into man. Unkelos on the spot translates “Nishmas Chayim” as Ruach Mimalila - a spirit of speech. When God blew from Himself into us – it generated our ability talk The Talk, namely God’s.
My speech is so powerful that my prayers can sway the outcome of real life events. Whether or not I appreciate it, my speech, in parable-like comparison to God’s, created realities as well. And this is, understandably, of tremendous weight. But it begins to shed light on Lashon HaRa, a sin carried out with speech.
The severity of Lashon HaRa is the fact that, even though we see it as only words, this sin – in a very real way – paints a reality in which my victim exists in a more negative light. And therefore the punishment is that he becomes a Metzora, which Chazal explain to come from the term Motzie Ra - He who brings out bad. He who, with his words, chooses to revamp the world around him in a negative angle – the results shine back at him.
When a person, Chas V’Shalom speaks Lashon HaRa, he shows that he neither realizes nor cares about the intrinsic power that strength that speech carries. Says Hashem in response, ‘You think that your words don’t matter? You think they aren’t real? I’m going to show you that your words are very real.’ And thus it is specifically in a transgression of speech that Heaven delivers a very real, very tangible reminder that words matter – a lot.
And with the same concept we can begin to understand what is going on with Pesach as well. Says the Ramchal, the light which generated the first redemption, meaning the energy with which we left Egypt, is the same light, the same force that will be used to bring about the final redemption. In our terms: every year when we celebrate Pesach, another giant leap is taken towards Geula.
And this happens specifically by speaking out Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim. The more I talk about redemption, the automatic outcome is that I paint a reality which is more receptive to the coming of Moshiach
And this emerges beautifully from a close reading of a seemingly simple piece in the Hagadah. There is a discussion between Ben Zoma and the Chachamim in regards to how we go about remembering Yitziyas Mitzrayim. The Passuk commands that you are obligated to remember the exodus, ‘Kol Yimei Chayecha’ - All the days of your life. Ah, but the Passuk could have said Yimei Chayecha - The days of your life, so what do we gain by throwing in all the days of your life? Say the Chachamim, Yimei Chayecha teaches us that in our times we need to fulfill this commandment, but the extra ‘all’, the extra ‘Kol’, that teaches us that we will remember the exodus even when the Messiah comes, “LeHavi L’Yimos HaMashiach”.
That’s the way we were taught to understand this passage since we are little kids. The problem is that is simply not what the words mean. LeHAvi L’Yimos HaMashiach doesn’t mean ‘in the days of the Messiah’ rather it means ‘to bring to the days of the Messiah’. What does it mean that this Mitzvah brings us to the days of Mashiach?
Now we understand clearly. Says the Sfas Emes, it is through speaking about redemption; it’s through telling the story of the exodus that we infuse the very fabric of the world around us with redemptive energy. And thus the Passuk comes to tell us that in as much as we speak about the Geulah from Mitzrayim do we also prepare the world do re-accept that light. ‘Kol Yimei Chayecha - LeHavi L’Yimos HaMashiach.
It’s clear at this point that the power of speech is no small thing. It is Godly and it has the ability to, on the one hand wreck the universe and tear up our lives and conversely it is on speech that the world stands and it is that same power that will bring the Geula Asida.
HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to find the inspiration and motivation to only speak about the right things. When we do, we automatically make the world a better place. This Pesach, we should be Zoche to play an active role in bringing the redemption and be meritorious enough to see it soon. If we can do this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Happiness and Growth, moving closer to the HaKadosh Baruch Hu and eventually Yimos HaMashiach!