You Are What You Speak

Posted on April 10, 2019

In 1839, English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, in his play “Cardinal Richelieu”. There is so much truth to this. While our bodies miraculously allow us to recover from physical wounds, the aftermath of words, if used improperly, is often more difficult to recover from. 

We are currently reading a very interesting section of the Torah, one dealing with properties of purity and impurity; and, one which centers around our mouths – the central entry point of nourishment, and the central point of communication. A couple of weeks ago in parashat Shemini, we dealt with the ideas of kashrut (dietary laws), and now we find ourselves looking at the metzora—the person afflicted with tzara’at (often incorrectly translated as leprosy, this word represents a variety of physical blemishes resulting from negative actions). 

The idea of the metzora (the one afflicted with tzara’at) is that they have misused speech. The rabbis connect this word with speech by splitting metzora into two words: motzi ra (one who speaks evil). In other words, one who engages in idle speech or gossip, becomes afflicted with this physical blemish…it’s as if they walk around with the thing they said painted on their forehead. They must leave the camp for a period of minimally one week, and then undergo a series of rituals to eventually be able to rejoin and engage with the community. By being removed from the community, a few things are accomplished. Of course, if the physical ailment is communicable, this prevents contagion. As well, if the root cause of this condition is idle speech, by removing oneself from the community, one has nobody to speak with. This removal, then, ensures that the idle speech will stop. By perpetuating idle speech, one has the power to cause the foundation of community to crumble. When we learn that the Temple was destroyed because of idle speech and senseless hatred, I look at it not as a punishment but as a result. If community were strong, and if members of the community used speech purposefully and thoughtfully to strengthen and build, rather than to destroy (either intentionally or unintentionally), it is likely that perhaps we could have been stronger than the swords which sought to destroy the physical center of our universe. 

We are approaching the holiday of Pesach. The seder, the major ritual observance of this holiday, is centered on words. It is centered on asking questions, giving answers, having deep and thoughtful conversation, and of course passing on the tradition to younger generations. In our family, we are challenged to take the ancient story of the Exodus and make it relevant by discussing issues present in our world and how we may participate in working toward a world in which all may enjoy the same sense of freedom as we. One of the founding principles of our great country is the freedom of speech. We can use our speech, individually and certainly collectively, to effect change—for good and for bad. I would then challenge us at our sedarim this year to teach the lesson of the metzora. If we use our speech idly, the negative consequences can be potentially devastating. But if we use our speech for praise, for love, and for speaking out against injustice, we may have immeasurable impact on society. 

May we all responsibly enjoy the freedoms provided by our country. May we treasure the freedom which is part of our Jewish narrative. And may we be vigilant to teach our children to use their freedom responsibly, and for perpetuating goodness.

See you in shul,

Hazzan Tisser