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From the Rabbi- Apr 11, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

This week's Torah portion, Tazria, and the coming Festival of Pesach, provide seemingly conflicting messages regarding what is proper behavior. Let's see if we can figure it out.

Rav Aaron Soloveitchik writes in his book, The Warmth and the Light, “Upon delivery from Egyptian bondage the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage their self-expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus the Israelites regained their speech. Slaves cannot express or assert themselves properly. They cannot realize their potential. Only the free man is capable of doing so. It can be added that slaves are not given the opportunity to raise questions or ponder ideas, that is reserved strictly to free people.”

The physical freedom we achieved at Pesach also allowed us the right to free speech, to say what we wanted to say. And in fact speech is very much a part of the Pesach observance – “And you shall tell it to your children,” and the one who increases telling the story of the exodus is to be praised.” So the lesson is obvious: raise your voice. It's a sign of being a free man.

But then we have this week's Torah portion of Tazria, which discusses, among other things the symptoms of a disease called tzaraat, often (mis)translated as leprosy. It was probably a bit closer to what we call psoriasis. Maimonides tells us that tzaraat was not a natural affliction, rather it was a miraculous affliction that infected only the Jewish People for the sin of lashon harah - of speaking slander and gossip. And so our speech is not free. We can't say everything we want to say. We have to be careful not to say lashon harah, not to speak slander or gossip. But what is considered lashon harah? The Torah, when it continues the discussion of lashon hara in next week’s parsha, Metzora, simply tells us: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people.”

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Hayim, devoted his life to studying and teaching the ins and outs of permissible and impermissible speech. The examples he discussed were practical and exhaustive. While one may debate his conclusions here and there, overall he seemed to hit the nail on the head. Based on his work, it seems that the laws governing speech are complicated and simple at the same time. The issues surrounding sharing information in professional or social settings, in letters of reference, or a phone call about a potential shidduch/match are certainly complex. At the same time, his advice was quite simple – avoid talking about people. Period. This was surely an effective way to avoid saying “the wrong things” about someone.

So, there's Pesach which gifts us the freedom of speech. And then there’s Tazria, which teaches that you get tzaraat for certain kinds of speech. Pesach and Tazria combined teach us an important lesson: You're free to say what you want … but you're smart to keep your mouth shut if you have nothing good to say.

Shabbat shalom.

This Friday evening we will welcome Shabbat at 6:30 in our chapel. Due to circumstance beyond our control it will be difficult for us to make the minyan. I ask that if you are able, please make every effort to attend the Friday service to be sure we have the numbers. 

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784