Monday, May 08, 2017

Parashat Emor: What's in a Word?

By HaRav Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El

Pure Words
On several occasions, we've spoken of the midrash at the opening of this week's Torah portion; just as we review the parsha each year, it is also fitting to review the midrash.

"'Say to the Kohanim (priests) the sons of Aharon.' Rabbi Tanchum the son of Chanilai stated: The verse in Tehilim (Psalms) reads: 'The words of Hashem are pure.' Does this mean to say that merely the words of God are pure, but the words spoken by people are not? Normally, when a human king arrives in a particular town to visit, all of the residents show up to greet him, showering him with honor and praise. He promises to build them bathhouses and new community facilities. But that night, he dies in his sleep. What of him and his pledges? The promises issued by flesh and blood may go unfulfilled, but the words of God, the Creator of the Universe - remain forever. This is the intention of the verse in Yirmeyahu, chapter 10, which asserts: 'Hashem, God, is True".

Short but Sweet
In the next portion of the midrash, the sages teach that it is fitting for people to speak in clean, appropriate language:"' The words of Hashem are pure'...In the Torah, God chose to write eight extra words in order to avoid using terminology which was not 100% 'clean. In the Book of Bereishit, for instance, Noach is told to choose for the ark from among 'the pure cattle and from the cattle that is not pure...' [- instead of referring to the latter group using the Hebrew term for ritually impure beasts, " Tameh." ] In disqualifying the rabbit as a pure animal, the Torah does not say that the impurity derives from the fact that the rabbit does not have split hooves, [though this is true] but rather that the rabbit is impure because it [only] chews its cud. (Vaykira 11)" The clear message of the midrash: when unpleasant things are uttered, they must be expressed in the cleanest, most honorable manner possible.

Careful: "Words Ahead"
The midrash continues:

"Rabbi Yossi of Malchiah, Rabbi Yehoshua of Sachnin in the name of Rabbi Levy said: 'During the reign of King David, there were children who, even before they sinned for the first time, knew how to engage in complex analyses of Jewish legal problems. David prayed for them, 'Guard them God' he would say, 'and save them from this generation...' - from the generation that is deserving of being wiped out. Despite the fact that the adults and children were quite advanced in their Torah learning, we are told, the male soldiers of the Jewish population at the time often fell in war. How is this possible? It was due to the fact that there were many people among them who spoke improperly. Among them were children, real scholars, who knew how to learn Torah well, but because of gossip, the nation had a poor war record. But the generation of Achav was entirely idolatrous, but because they did not utter 'lashon hara' (gossip) - they were victorious in battle".

When we talk about being careful about speech, we're talking about two different issues. What to say, and how to say it.

First of all, it is important not to say things that need not be said. When something is in need of being said, it should be expressed using clean, appropriate language. I've mentioned on several occasions that Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook (of blessed memory) was very cautious with his words, always carefully weighing what he had to say before he said it. He would never say things in the negative, but would always couch his ideas in positive terms.

An Anecdote
When I was a teacher in the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, I was asked my opinion of a particular young man, and whether I thought he would be a suitable match for a young woman. I was a little harsh when I responded that he was an unruly, almost wild person. I later spoke to Rav Tzvi Yehuda, and asked him whether the term I used was proper or improper. The Rav knew the young man, understood what kind of person he was, and then told me that I should have said: "The boy needs to improve his personal qualities." The same idea was conveyed by this expression but it constituted a more delicate way of addressing the issue.

When one is speaking of a person who is ill, it is improper to say: "he is seriously ill" - but rather that he is in "real need of a refuah (remedy.)" The content is the same, everyone understands the person's condition, but - once again, such terminology is more delicate. When Rav Tzvi Yehuda's sister was very ill and the family knew that these were her last moments in this world, the Rav inquired regarding her condition by asking: "Does she still have some contact with the living"?

King Finds Middle Ground
On the verse later in the parsha, "An ox or sheep or goat that gives birth.." - the midrash tells of Alexander Mokdon, who arrived in a certain country in the continent of Africa, and there, he was greeted with gifts of gold by local residents. He assured them that he was not interested in gifts, but in learning how the people there adjudicated their legal cases. "Soon, two people came before the King to have a case judged." One said: I bought a plot of land, ploughed it and found a buried treasure. I came to the seller and offered him the treasure, pointing out that it rightfully belonged to him, since I purchased land, not a treasure".

"The seller refused to accept the treasure: 'Just as you are in fear of transgressing the prohibition of stealing, so am I. I sold you the land including all that was in it. 'The King asked one of them: 'Do you have a son?' He answered in the affirmative. The King then asked the other, 'Do you have a daughter?' He, too nodded his head. The King thus decided that the two children should be wed and receive the treasure as a gift. Alexander Mokdon was astonished. The King asked him: 'Why are you so surprised? Did I not decide correctly?' Alexander responded: 'You decided very correctly.' The King asked: 'How do they decide such cases in your area?' Alexander: 'Back home, the two sides would kill each other, and the treasure would be awarded to the King. The King asked: 'Does the sun shine where you're from?' Alexander: 'Yes.' 'The rain fall?' 'Yes.' 'Do you have sheep?' 'Yes.' The King said: 'Maybe it's because of the sheep that you have rain, since rain would not fall simply on behalf of people like you, nor would the sun shine for you'".

I have to say that on our yishuv, we often confront similar cases to the one above. A person comes and asks - after his neighbor has waived his own rights to some money that was at issue between them and there is no longer a disagreement - "Are you sure that I do not have to pay him?" I am regularly asked questions associated with the benefiting from money that is not ours. This is a wonderful thing, and highly praiseworthy.

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