Friday, 12 April, 2019 - 9:21 am

A guy joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence: he’s allowed to say two words every seven years.

After the first seven years, the elders bring him in and ask for his two words.

"Cold floors," he says. They nod and send him away.

Seven more years pass. They bring him back in and ask for his two words. He clears his throat.

"Bad food," he says. They nod and send him away.

Seven more years pass. They bring him in for his two words.

"I quit," he says.  "That’s not surprising," the elders say. "You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here."

There is a fascinating story recorded in Midrash in the opening of this week’s portion Metzora:

The time: Early third century, around the year 200 CE. The place: the bustling town of Tzepori in Upper Galilee. The great Talmudic sage Rabbi Yannai is in his study, expounding the Scriptures.

The loud voice of a street peddler is heard, chanting: "Who wishes to purchase the elixir of life, the elixir of life?" Rabbi Yannai looks out of his window, sees crowds gathered around the peddler, all pushing to purchase the special medicine compound that will give life. At last, someone has discovered the pill that will make you skinny, healthy, happy, beautiful, charming, and strong.

The pill, it turns out, is simple: Don’t gossip. Rabbi Yannai is excited. He says he never understood this till this peddler came around. But why did he not know a simple verse in Psalms?

This, the Midrash concludes, is the meaning of the verse in the opening of our weekly portion, Metzora:  “This shall be the law of the Metzora.” The word metzora, is traditionally translated as "leper".

But the word Metzora sounds just like motzi-ra, i.e., one who utters evil with his mouth. The crime and the punishment are both in one word, for this type of leprosy was—during the days of the Temple—the symptom of gossip and slander.

[The definition of gossip, by the way, is: Hearing something you like about someone you don't.]

An interesting tidbit:

Rarely did a sage of modern times earn such popularity among Jews of all backgrounds and communities. Why did the Chafetz Chaim merit this? The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that this was a reward from heaven because he dedicated his life to fighting the plague of gossip among Jews, to build bridges of mutual respect and love among our people.

The story is set in the Galilee, at the beginning of the third century CE. This is 80 years after the Bar Kochva failed revolt against the Romans, which decimated the remainder of the fighters. The Romans were brutal beyond description. Any demonstration of defiance was punished with horrific torture and death. The message was simple but crucial: if you want to survive, guard your tongue. Guarding your tongue is not a matter of luxury, it is a matter of life and death. An extra word, a wrong expression, can cost us and our nation its very life! 

Whoever is even slightly familiar with what occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin, 1925-1953 understand this sentiment very well. A wrong word to the wrong person can end you up in the gulag for 25 years, or have you shot in a prison cell. Stalin managed to create “an empire of fear,” where a mother was afraid to talk to her child, and a brother could not trust his own sibling.

After seventy years of Communist oppression and seven hours of flying to Israel, Boris, a burly immigrant from Moscow steps off the plane in a free land to begin his new life in his new home, Israel. Standing at the airport in Tel Aviv, young and enthusiastic Israeli reporter plunges a microphone in front of him with a level of excitement that is only seen when an inside scoop is about to be caught.

The reporter asks with focus: “Tell me, what was life back in Russia like?” To which the Russian immigrant replies: “I couldn’t complain.” An obviously unexpected answer, the young reporter continues to probe: “Well how were your living quarters there?” to which the Russian responds “I couldn’t complain.” Not expecting this answer either, the reporter decides to hit him with a question that is bound to get the answer he is looking for: “What about your standard of living?” to which the Russian replies again: “I couldn’t complain.”

At this point, the reporter’s frustration and disappointment with the new immigrant’s answers reaches a crescendo, and so in a derogatory tone the reporter yells out, “Well, if everything was so wonderful back in Russia, then why did you even bother to come here?”

To which the new Oleh (immigrant) replies with gusto: “Oh… Here I can complain!”

Yet this is far from the literal meaning of this story, where Rabbi Yannai expressed his excitement that he gleaned a new, lesson from the peddler about abstaining from gossip as the elixir of life. But the verse is straightforward. What did the Peddler invent?

One possible answer is that certainly, Rabbi Yannai understood that a person who desires life needs to guard his tongue. But Rabbi Yannai had understood that the only way to guard one's tongue against evil is to become an anti-social, a recluse. Rav Yannai believed that mixing with society, having friends and engaging in conversation was a sure formula for NOT being able to live up to the standards of "Who is the man who desires life."

There is a story about the great Greek philosopher Socrates (ancient Greece 469 - 399 BCE), well known for his wisdom. (He would ultimately have to pay for this wisdom with his life.)

One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance who said excitedly: "Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?"

"Wait a moment," Socrates replied. "Before telling me anything I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Triple Filter Test."

"Triple filter?"

"That's right," Socrates continued "Before you talk to me about my student, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you're going to say. The first filter is the Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?"

"No," the man said, "actually I just heard about it and ...."

"All right," said Socrates. "So you don't really know if it's true or not.

Now let's try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?"

"No, on the contrary ..."

"So," Socrates continued, "you want to tell me something bad about him, but you're not certain it's true. You may still pass the test though because there's one filter left: the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?"

"No, not really."

"Well," concluded Socrates, "if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?"

Can we all live our lives this way—with these three filters? It would be nice, but Rabbi Yannai thought that philosophers, hermits by nature. Not so the man who lives in the real world and schmooze for a living.

Now, sometimes exposing a story can save a country or a life, but often it is slander for the joy of slander. We believe in wiki-leaking every individual life.

Rabbi Yannai's revelation was not so much the interpretation of the verse itself, but rather the teacher of the lesson. The peddler taught him that one can be a “peddler,” a social butterfly, a party animal, a great networker, a salesman, an agent, a broker, even a rabbi -- and still never forfeit that elixir of life, to guard one’s tongue from gossip, slander, and negative talk about other people.

And the peddler taught Rabbi Yannai something else: The verse in Psalms is not a metaphor. It is to be understood very simply: guarding your tongue against negative chatter is a life-saver. As a great scholar, Rabbi Yannai was entrenched in his studies, he could not appreciate the SIMPLICITY of this truth. He understood it as symbolic: guarding your speech is good for life. The peddler was round and about the real world; he observed firsthand what talking negatively about people can do, the type of havoc, destruction, ill feelings and ill actions it generates.

We don’t even realize when we talk, what the ripple effects will be and how long they will last.

“You hesitate to stab me with a word, and know not—silence is the sharper sword,” Samuel Johnson said.

On the other hand, guarding our tongue is a recipe for life. Let’s use this pill, the best one yet invented for civilization, and—believe it or not—it’s free!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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