Speech: A User’s Guide
Parshas Metzora begins with a description of how the metzora/leper
described in last week’s parsha regains his purity. It is a complex
process, which includes two birds, one which is slaughtered as a
sacrifice. The second bird is dipped in the first bird’s blood, and sent
off “on the face of the field.”
The use of sacrificial birds is not unheard of, but somewhat unusual.
Rashi explains that since the disease of tzaraas is a physical
manifestation of the sin of lashon hara (ill-meant gossip), as we
discussed last week, the Torah dictates that its purification should come
through the chirpy bird: “Just like he let his mouth run off, let him
bring a bird, which chirps and tweets all the time.”
Rashi doesn’t address why one bird alone isn’t enough to stress the point;
nor why only one of the birds is slaughtered; nor why the second bird is
sent “on the face of the field.”
R’ Shlomo Gantzfried zt”l, author of the famous Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,
explains based on the following Gemara (Chullin 89a):
R’ Yitzchok said, “What is the meaning of the following verse
(Tehillim/Psalms 58:2): ‘Indeed silence? Speak righteousness. Judge
people with fairness.’? [It means this:] What is man’s profession in
this world? To be silent like the mute. Perhaps even for the words of
Torah [i.e. silence is preferred even to discussing Torah]? This is why
the verse continues, ‘Speak righteousness [i.e. talk in Torah study].
Perhaps the Torah scholar is permitted to become arrogant? This is why it
continues, ‘Judge people with fairness.’”
In a nutshell, R’ Yitzchok derives from the above verse that, with the
notable exception of Torah study, one’s ‘occupation’ should be to keep as
quiet as possible. This is likely connected to the admonishment of Shlomo
Ha-Melech (King Salomon – Mishlei/Proverbs 10:19), “With many words,
sin will not be avoided.”
The Gemara (Eiruvin 21b) compares the Torah scholar to the farmer. Just
like the farmer ekes out his living by the sweat of his brow, so too the
Torah scholar lives a life of simplicity and often lacking in material
comforts, in order to achieve success in his Torah studies.
Mefarshim explain that one of the ideas behind animal sacrifice is that
the sacrificial animal takes the place of man. The sinner, they say,
should imagine everything that’s happening to the animal should really be
happening to him.
Were the metzora to bring only one bird, which is slaughtered, he would
likely understand that the bird, which chirps all day, had to be
slaughtered to atone for his sin. He was unable to stop his busy lips from
making disparaging comments about others, and because of that, the bird –
in his place – will chirp no more. As a means of repentance, he would
reason, he should clam up and refuse to speak.
Assuming the thoughtful metzora got this far, he would have indeed been
correct – to a point. One’s occupation in this world is to make himself
silent, but not completely so. Not with regards to Torah study.
Not only is it obviously wrong for him to become so upset and introverted
that he refuses to discuss the words of Torah – he should in fact be
increasing his speech in that regard. The Gemara (Erchin 15b) says that
the gossiper, who defiled his mouth with idle and nasty speech, should
correct his sin and cleanse his tongue by increasing Torah study.
The second bird, which is allowed to live, teaches the metzora that speech
in-and-of itself is not bad – it can be life giving. It all depends what
it’s used for. Speech of Torah brings life; slander and gossip bring
death. “The tree of life [a metaphor for the Torah] heals the tongue
(Mishlei 15:4).” The bird is sent out to the field, alluding to the
Torah scholar, who, like the farmer, leads a life of simplicity and sparse
material comfort. [Apirion]
Pharaoh enslaved the Jews in Egypt. The word Pharaoh can be broken down
into two words, peh ra – a bad mouth.
Sefarim write that part of the Egyptian exile was that the Jews lacked the
ability to study Torah. Firstly, it had not yet been given. Secondly,
although the Torah was in some form passed down through Yaakov and Yehuda,
the back-breaking slavery to which the Jews were subjected made Torah
study, which requires one’s full concentration, an impossibility.
Without the Torah, the Jews had no way of purifying their speech, and fell
under the domination of Pharaoh – peh ra; their mouths were defiled. This
is why, before the redemption, they groaned and screamed to Hashem from
the inhuman slavery (Shemos/Exodus 2:23), but could not express their
prayer in words.
Pesach, the Yom Tov which celebrates the release of the Jews from Egypt
and their redemption from the exile of speech, is an especially meaningful
time for Torah study. It’s interesting that the Yom Tov is preceded by two
parshios that deal with the sin and ultimate purification of the ba’al
lashon hara. Apparently one who wants to be part of Pesach’s redemption
first has to cleanse his mouth from speaking badly about others. Have a
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org