“Who is the person who desires life, loving each day to see good? Then guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.” (Psalm 34: 13-14)
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
In the two parashot of this week, Tazria and Metzora, are described the details of the disease of leprosy, Tzaraat, and stipulate how the Cohen should proceed according to the kind of illness that the person had.
Most of the sages agree that the norms regarding leprosy are not sanitary norms since the Torah does not treat this disease from the medical point of view. The sages explain that this condition is related to relationships between people. They associate this infection specifically with the concept of Lashon Hara, slander. Where do they deduce this association? The sages find that the word Motzi shem ra, slanderer, contains the letters that make up the word Metzora (leper).
Our sages have been concerned with this issue and have written many texts in relation to Lashon Hara. They are aware of the enormous damage that speaking ill of another person can cause.
There is a Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (16:2) that says:
“It once happened that a certain peddler was wandering from town to town and crying out, “Who wishes to buy a life-giving potion?” Rabbi Yannai heard this man’s shouting and called upon him for an explanation. The peddler took out the Book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse: “Who is the person who desires life, loving each day to see good? Then guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:13-15)
Rabbi Yannai exclaimed: All my life I have been reading this verse and never quite understood what it meant until this peddler came and explained it.”
Commentators have struggled with the question, “What did the peddler say that Rabbi Yannai did not already know?” Rabbi Yannai, by his own testimony, had read the Book of Psalms many times. The meaning of the verses quoted seems to be self-evident. What could this peddler have added to Rabbi Yannai’s understanding?
Maybe this is the insight Rabbi Yannai heard from the peddler. “Do you want to know the secret of a long life? Of a properly lived life of doing good and pursuing peace? Then first you must guard your tongue from evil. That is the secret potion, the healing medicine which will enable you to go on to the next step, moral health.”
Rabbi Yannai was accustomed to reading these verses differently. He understood the question, “Who desires life?” But he thought that there was one compound answer: guard your tongue, turn from evil, do good, and seek peace.
The peddler taught something much more profound. The answer to, “Who desires life?” It consists of stages, the first of which is a healing process acquired by ingesting the potion of good speech. Then one can move up to the next stage, living a full and healthy ethical life.
In other words, the key to a good life starts by having good use of speech, addressing our fellow human beings with kind, encouraging, positive, and respectful words. This is the potion for a good life!
The sages know how easily we use our tongues for evil purposes daily. Maybe for this reason, in the prayer “Al Het” which we pray many times during Yom Kippur, appears many references to the sin connected to speech. Among other things we say:
For the sin we have committed before You by the utterance of our lips.
And for the sin we have committed before You in the speech of our mouths.
For the sin we have committed before You by impure lips.
And for the sin we have committed before You by the foolishness of our mouths.
For the sin we have committed before You by slander.
And for the sin we have committed before You by tale bearing and gossip.
The sages, trying to prevent us to use our speech in an evil way, inserted a passage after the Amidah, which we recite three times a day, all year long:
“May God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies” (Talmud Berachot 17a)
May we be able to you use our power of speech for good purposes, addressing our fellow human beings with kind, encouraging, positive, and respectful words.