Torah for the Times

Friday, April 27, 2012 - 5 Iyar, 5772

Torah Reading: Tazriah - Metzorah (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33)
Candle Lighting Time: 7:30PM
Shabbat Ends: 8:34M

Five Books, Five Modes of Speech

This week’s “twin” parsha discusses, in vivid detail, the laws concerning the unusual disease called tzara’as. This disease can manifest itself on one’s body with skin lesions. It can show up on a garment or even on one’s house. The Torah discusses at length how this person, garment or house is to be treated and purified.

According to the Talmudic Sages these diseases occurred as a result of the sin of lashon hara, speaking ill of others.

In this twin parsha, the Torah employs the expression: “This is the law (Torah)” in relation to tzara’as five times. This has prompted the Midrash to state: “Whoever speaks lashon hara is tantamount to violating the five books of the Torah”

Commentators point out that there are allusions to lashon hara in each of the Five Books of Moses, which explains why violation of this law is considered to be the equivalent of violating each of these five books.

In Genesis we read of Adam pointing the accusing finger of guilt at his wife, saying that she had given him to eat of the forbidden fruit. One may also add the story of Joseph who would offer negative reports of his brothers to his father Jacob.In Exodus we read of how Dasan and Aviram reported Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster to Pharaoh.

In Leviticus we have, as stated, almost two entire sections devoted to the subject of tzara’as which was a punishment for lashon hara. In addition, the Torah expressly commands us in this book not to be talebearers, a form of lashon hara.

In Numbers, we have the story of Miraim, Moses’ sister, who mildly slandered her brother Moses. We also have the story of the spies who slandered the Land of Israel when they returned from their mission of scouting the land.

And in the book of Deuteronomy we read of the command to be careful in observing the laws of tzara’as, which, as noted, was a result of lashon hara.

What is the significance of these five books each containing an allusion to lashon hara? And what difference does it make if these references were contained in one book or in five?

Upon reflection we must conclude that lashon hara is not just given an “honorable” (or, more precisely, a dishonorable) mention in each of the five books. There is an organic connection between the central theme of each of these books and lashon hara.

The Book of Bereishis/Genesis, as its name suggests, is about the origins of the world and of the Jewish people. It is about the seeds that G‑d planted in the world at large and then in the Land of Israel in particular. When Adam sinned, he might have been forgiven if he had accepted full responsibility. Instead he put the blame on Eve. Adam could therefore not be the father of the Jewish nation whose role it would be to make the world a “dwelling place for G‑d.” Indeed, Adam was even expelled from the Garden of Eden because he could no longer tend to it. In the end, he did not even merit to be the father of humanity. All of his descendents except Noach and his immediate family perished. G‑d, as it were, “had” to start all over. The first rule of leadership is to assume responsibility for your actions. Adam’s negative speech undermined his role as the one who would begin the process of making the world a “dwelling” for G‑d.

In a somewhat different vein, Joseph’s negative reporting caused a rift between him and his brothers that resulted in his sale and ultimately the Egyptian bondage. It undermined the genesis of the Jewish people and was a portent of the division of the future that would lengthen the exile.

The Book of Shemos/Exodus is about liberation. It is also about the Jewish people becoming a unique nation when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. That experience equipped them with the knowledge and the spiritual energy to fulfill their mission to transform the world into G‑d’s home. But this process was in peril when Moses heard the two rebels Dasan and Aviram slander him and ultimately inform on him to Pharaoh. Moses was concerned, Rashi tells us, that this vice could prove to be a setback for their liberation. A people that turns against its own cannot survive as a people. G‑d’s “experiment” with the nascent Jewish nation was in danger of being aborted and Moses was understandably apprehensive.

The third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, is about the unique role a kohain plays in the service of the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. It is a book about holy places, people and offerings. The Hebrew name Vayikra, which means “And He called,” refers to the special endearing way G‑d communicates with Moses and by extension to all of Israel. Nothing can distance one from holiness and from this warm relationship with G‑d more than lashon hara and the discord it sows. Thus, the person afflicted with this disease must be exiled outside of walled, i.e., holy cities in Israel. Holiness cannot tolerate the person who searches for the negative in others and exposes it. The very word metzora, which is used by the Torah to describe the person afflicted with tzara’as (incorrectly translated as leprosy), connotes “motzi ra, one who discovers negativity” or/and “one who exposes negativity.” This obviously does not apply to one who exposes another’s flaws in order to help them deal with them or to protect unsuspecting people from being harmed.

The fourth book of Numbers is about the Jewish nation’s traversing the desert (hence the Hebrew name for the book “Bamidbar, in the desert”) under the leadership of Moses. This sojourning in the desert was a portent of the journey of the Jewish nation through all of history on the way to the Promised Land of the era of Redemption.

The nature of this that speak lashon hara is often to criticize the leaders, in particular. Miriam in a subtle and unintentional way, and the spies in a more crass, vulgar and rebellious fashion, directed their barbs against Moses and indeed against G‑d. This attitude is what undermines Jewish continuity because Jewish people can only thrive when they have a cohesive existence under the guidance of competent leaders. To slander the leader threatens to unravel the chords that bind us together as a people and threaten our existence amongst what is Biblically called, “the desert of nations.”

In addition, the name Numbers is a reflection of the census taken by Moses. It was his way of regimenting the Jews into a cohesive group to ensure survival and an efficient march through the real and virtual desert. Lashon hara against the leader and the Land of Israel, renders the census a virtual exercise in futility.

And finally, the Book of Deuteronomy is a book in which Moses restates and reviews much of the Torah. It is known in Hebrew as the book of Devarim, which means words. It is the ultimate book of communication. Moses communicates the Torah to the Jewish people in a shortened and summarized version. This was so that the teachings of the Torah would be relevant, accessible, meaningful and palatable to the Jewish nation that was about to embark on the final leg of its journey—entering into the Promised Land. The book of Deuteronomy is also about the final goal and destination of the Jewish people which is to leave exile and return to the Promised Land with Moshiach. The restatement of the Torah by Moses can also be viewed as a sample of the new dimensions of Torah that will be revealed in the Messianic Age by Moshiach.

Towards this end it is crucial that one does not misuse the gift of speech that can pour cold water on our hopes and aspirations. Improper speech can sow doubts and cool off our enthusiasm for Moshiach and Redemption and G‑d forbid delay the onset of the Messianic Age and the receiving of the new dimensions of Torah.

In short, seeing the negative in others, taints our Genesis/humanity; Exodus/status as a nation Leviticus/holiness; Numbers/journey through exile and Deuteronomy/final transition into Redemption.

In truth, all five elements are inherent in Moshiach and Redemption.

In that age, G‑d’s plan will become a reality: the entire world will become a Garden of Eden, a reality that eluded Adam. Moshiach is obviously all about Redemption of a united people. Moshiach is about building the third Beis Hamikdash and thereby revealing the hidden dimensions of holiness of the world at large and of the Jewish people in particular. The belief in and hope for Moshiach is what makes our sojourn through the desert of nations a shorter and more manageable trip. Moshiach, who, as our Sages tell us, embodies Moses’ soul, is also the ultimate communicator of Torah’s essence. It is Moshiach who will make even the most esoteric matters understandable.

All of these qualities that parallel the Five Books of Moses can be undermined, tainted or delayed when our speech and thoughts are geared to elicit the negativity of others. Conversely, positive speech has the capacity to: reveal the Garden of Eden and spread it to the entire world, liberate and sanctify the Jewish people, enable them to travel smoothly and quickly through the last moments of exile and become receptive to Moshiach’s teachings.

Moshiach Matters
“The Moshiach is a human being, born of human parents. Don’t mistakenly think he is something ‘otherworldly.’ He has two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet. And he has a heart with four
chambers. One of those chambers is for unclean blood which the heart then takes and purifies.
That is Moshiach’s job - to take the impure and convert it to goodness and holiness.”
(The Rebbe in an interview with Israel Shenker for the NY Times, 11 Nissan, 5732 - March 27, 1972)
Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit