There is an interesting Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 16:2) connected with a
central theme of this week’s parsha – the halachos of a metzorah and the
prevention of lashon horah (hurtful speech).
It relates how Reb Yannai had observed a peddler who was hawking his wares
in a marketplace near the city of Tziporri. The peddler made a provocative
pronouncement that attracted the attention of all the shoppers. “Who would
like to obtain a potion for long life?” he announced. A crowd of people
looking to purchase this elixir that would assure them longevity quickly
surrounded the peddler. At that point, he removed a sefer Tehilim and read
the verses (34:14,15) “Mi ha’ish he’chafetz chaim … netzor l’shoncha
merah…” (Who is the man who desires [long] life? … Guard your tongue from
Reb Yannai concluded this Midrash by stating that he had read these
pesukim in tehilim throughout his life, but he never understood their
meaning properly until he heard the words of this merchant.
Upon reflection, this Midrash is quite difficult to comprehend. What did
Reb Yannai find lacking in the basic meaning of these pesukim of Tehilim?
They seem to be rather straightforward: Dovid HaMelech informs us that the
recipe for long life is to refrain from speaking ill of others. What
deeper understanding did the merchant offer Reb Yannai that he had not
previously gleaned from his many readings of the pesukim?
I would like to suggest that it might have been the location and the bold
initiative of the peddler that offered to Reb Yannai a fresh insight into
the timeless words of Dovid Hamelech.
Reb Yannai may have wondered why Dovid Hamelech started his thoughts with
a rhetorical question. – “Mi ha’ish he’chafetz chaim. ”What was the point
of that question? After all, which person would not want life? Why didn’t
Dovid HaMelech simply instruct us to refrain from harmful speech without
beginning with the leading question that he asked?
An answer may be that the peddler offered Reb Yannai a deeper
understanding of these pesukim by giving his ‘shiur in Shmirah Halashon’
in the middle of a bustling marketplace. It is much simpler to refrain
from harmful speech and hurtful words during the time that we spend in the
Beis Hamidrash. It is much trickier to maintain our moral compass in the
playground or in midst of a hectic workday in the marketplace. The peddler
may have been hinting this with his opening line, “Who wants life – in all
aspects of daily living? He then followed with the sage advice to refrain
from degrading types of speech.
Reb Yannai may also have been focusing on the fact that the peddler took
the initiative to deliver this message when there was no evidence of
wrongdoing at all. The segment in Tehilim that begins with, “Mi ho’ish
he’chafetz chaim ends with, “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu..” Dovid Hamelech is
advising us to follow in the path of Ahron HaKohein and be proactive in
seeking peace, not reactively waiting to put out the fire of machlokes.
Reb Yanni watched with admiration as this simple peddler brought
spirituality and the word of Hashem to people from all walks of life – and
caused the marketplace to bask in the glow of the Torah. Like any master
teacher, he opened with an introductory question (as did Dovid HaMelech) -
which enabled him to share his priceless advice with Reb Yanni – and all
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.