Hear ye, Hear ye

A teaching of Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, from Meor Einayim, Parshat Metzora.

זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ וְהוּבָא אֶל הַכֹּהֵן This shall be the Torah of the leper on the day of his purification; he shall be brought to the Kohen. Leviticus 14:2

Our holy rabbis taught that the leper (metzora) is a slanderer (motzi shem ra), and it was the sin of slander, lashon hara, that brought on the afflicting sores (1)… Now God takes great joy in each one of us, even the very wicked, as the rabbis understood the verse in Song of Songs: “Even the least among you is as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is of seeds” (2). So when you speak lashon hara about another, even if it is true, it is as if you take that joy away from the Creator and instead bring Him sadness, as it is written, “God’s heart was saddened” (3). In this way God’s joy (ענג ‘oneg) is turned to affliction (נגע nega‘), and so, in the way of “measure for measure” (4), afflicting sores (nog’im) come upon the slanderer.

Our holy sages compare lashon hara to idol worship, and we must understand this connection. In Psalms it is written, “By the word of G!d were the heavens made” (5), for all the worlds and all creatures were made through the twenty-two letters of the Torah (6), which is called “The Kingdom of Heaven” (7), for through God’s words is God’s will revealed and His kingdom established… Now God would never speak lashon hara about us, just as a father would never speak ill of his child. So when you speak lashon hara, you deny that speech is The Kingdom of Heaven and the place where God’s sovereignty can be revealed. In this way it is as if you are an idol worshiper, and you become like those of whom King David spoke: “They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail; with lips like ours, who can be our master?'” (8).

You must not be like them, but rather have faith that your speech is The Kingdom of Heaven. How do you come to this faith? Through Torah study. For when you speak words of Torah and bind your speech to the letters of the Torah you bring into your speech the Kingdom of Heaven. [Even this use of language must be with the right intent,] as our holy sages argue: one says for the slanderer there is no remedy, while another says he should study Torah, as it is written, “The Tree of Life heals the tongue” (9). Truly there is no disagreement here, but rather this is another case of “These and these are the words of the living God” (10): studying Torah not for its own sake will not bring a remedy, but learning Torah for its own sake truly brings healing to the wayward tongue (11).

This is the meaning of “This shall be the Torah of the slanderer,” that is, the slanderer’s Torah study must raise up his speech and bind it to the Kingdom of Heaven (which the Zohar calls “This”), “and he shall be brought to the Kohen,” that is, to God, Who is called “Kohen” (12).

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1) Arachin 15b   2) Song of Songs 4:3: k’pelach harimon rakatech, translated literally as “your brow is like a split pomegranate,” is translated creatively in Eruvin 19a as “your worthless ones are like a split pomegranate.”    3) Genesis 6:6   4) “Measure for measure” is the simple idea that every action has an equal and parallel spiritual reaction (as in karma). One famous and obvious example in the Torah is when Jacob, who pretended to be his brother to receive the blessing from Isaac, is later tricked into marrying Leah, disguised as Rachel. An even more pointed case is found in Pirkei Avot 2:7, when Hillel sees a skull floating on the water and says, “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you; in the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.”    5) Psalms 33:6   6) Possibly the oldest Jewish mystical idea and the main thesis of the oldest Jewish mystical text we know of, Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation.    7) Found throughout the Zohar.    8) Psalms 12:5    9) Proverbs 15:4   10) Eruvin 13b   11) The rabbinic phrase Torah lishma traditionally meant “Torah for its own sake,” but Hasidism, following the Zohar, read it as “Torah for Her sake,” that is, for the sake of the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, here named “The Kingdom of Heaven” and embodied in the Torah. So in this case I was able to leave the traditional translation as it is, for here “She” is Torah.   12) 1:94a; Sanhedrin 39a

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