Blog - Torah Insights

Creative Speech

s.jpgCreative Speech 

In recent years social scientists began to observe that the choice of words used to frame the dissection determine the outcome. Here is one example regarding health:

 A patient has just been told that he has a terminal illness. However, he is informed that there is an operation that might save his life. If he is told that there is a 90 percent survival rate for the operation, he will respond one way. If he is told that there is a 10 percent chance of dying during the operation, he will respond differently. When he is told that he has a 10 percent chance of dying, rather than a 90 percent chance of surviving, he is about three times less likely to have the operation.

If the subject is framed as a loss — 10 percent chance of dying — as opposed to  a gain — 90 percent chance of living — people respond entirely differently. They make a different decision.[1]

This should come as no surprise to students of Judaism.

In the middle of the book of Leviticus, between the discussion of the most intensely holy times in Judaism; between the story of the first day the Divine presence rested in the temple and the commandments regarding Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the calendar, the Torah introduces a seemingly unrelated set of laws. The Torah devotes no less than 116 verses to discuss the laws of Tzaraat, the supernatural from of leprosy, which, our sages explain, would miraculously appear as a punishment for the sin of speaking evil about others. Why does the Torah devote so much space and an unusual amount of details, to the subject of the impurity and the following purification process of Tzaraat?

In some ways, the Torah considers the impurity of Tzaraat to be the most severe form of impurity. The person afflicted with Tzaraat, alone amongst all forms of impurity, had to leave the city, was isolated from others and dwelt alone.

This implies that, in some ways, evil speech is worse than any other form of sin.

Indeed, the commentators explain, that the foundation of a healthy society is a relationship of friendship and trust. Thus, a person speaking slander is sowing distrust and created division in society which hampers economic and social well being. Thus, to preserve itself, society has no choice but to expel the speaker of evil tongue until he is rehabilitated to the point where he appreciates the benefits of a healthy society.   

Yet there is much more to the story.

The Torah has a deep respect for speech. As early as in the third verse of Torah, we read that G-d created the world with speech, “And G-d said let there be light and there was light”. The Torah understands that speech is tremendously potent, that just as G-d created the universe with speech, we too shape our own universe through speech. 

A child misbehaves in the class, the teacher cannot seem to grab the child’s attention. If the teacher tells the child ”you are the worst trouble maker who ever stepped foot into this classroom”, then indeed, right then and there a trouble maker is created. If the teacher tells the child “you have so much energy! If we learn to channel your energy you will accomplish great things” then right then and there greatness is born.

The Torah spends 116 verses on the subject of Tzaraat in order to teach us that holiness depends on the words we use. The words we use create our reality. A productive and holy society can only be created through positive speech.

For just as G-d created the universe with speech, we too shape our own universe through speech.


Family Harmony

n.jpgFamily Harmony  

After an act of deep betrayal, the children were about to reconcile with their father. They gathered together for what was to be the culmination of a month long effort to rehabilitate their loving relationship.

All were gathered in great anticipation of the arrival of their father. Yet, one important question remained: could the children reunite with their father before they healed the division between themselves?

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha, Shimini, describes, how after months of tremendous devotion and effort, the Jewish people finally completed the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, in the desert. The Mishkan was the place where the divine presence would dwell. It was the place where the people would see that the terrible betrayal, the sin of the golden calf, was forgiven, and that G-d would once again dwell in their midst, as He did at Sinai.    

On that day, the Torah tells us:

And it was on the eighth day, that Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. And he said to Aaron, "Take for yourself a bull calf as a sin offering”.[1]

Moses told Aaron to offer a calf for atonement. Why a calf? While we need to turn to Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator, to inform us of the reason for offering a calf specifically, it was certainly clear to the people of Israel at the time: the calf was to represent the atonement of the sin of the golden calf. It was obvious to all that the Divine presence could not return to the Jewish people before the betrayal was finally and completely healed.     

But then Moses continued: 

And to the children of Israel, you shall speak, saying, 'Take a he-goat as a sin offering…”[2]

What now? Why a goat? What other “unfinished business” did the people have to attend to before the glory of G-d would appear before them?

While the” calf” immediately evoked the story of the golden calf, finding the meaning of the “goat” is a bit harder. We must turn back to the book of Genesis to discover that indeed the goat played an important role in the most terrible tragic sin of the family of Israel: the sale of Joseph.[3] After the brothers tore their family unity to shreds by selling Joseph to slavery in Egypt, a sale which eventually led to the entire family relocating to Egypt and eventually descending into slavery, instead of showing any remorse they used a goat for their cover up:

And they took Joseph's coat, and they slaughtered a he-goat, and they dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought [it] to their father, and they said, "We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son's coat or not." He recognized it, and he said, "[It is] my son's coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up."[4]

As the people gathered at the temple waiting to see a sign of the Divine presence that would heal the tear between the Children of Israel and their father in heaven, Moses taught them that in order to heal the relationship with their father, the children must first heal the relationship with each other. Moses explained that the jealousy and division that led to the sale of Joseph, was, in fact, the precise character trait that led to the division and separation from G-d at the golden calf and must be eradicated from their midst if they were to find harmony with G-d.

For indeed, the only way for children to be in complete harmony with a parent is when they are in complete harmony with each other.[5]



[1] Leviticus 9:1-2.

[2] Ibid. 9:3.

[3] See Midrash Toras Kohamim.

[4] Genesis 37:31-33.

[5] Based on the Kli Yakar on Parshas Shmini. 

The Road to Gratitude

so.jpgThe Road to Gratitude

Unique among the various types of offerings discussed in the book of Leviticus is the thanksgiving offering. It was brought when an individual wanted to offer thanks to G-d for being saved from a danger -

as Rashi explains:

“if [he is bringing the offering] to give thanks for a miracle that had happened to him, for instance, those who made a sea-voyage [and returned safely] or journeyed in the desert, or those who had been imprisoned [and were subsequently released]”[1]

- he would bring an offering to the temple.  

The thanksgiving offering was unique in that along with the animal it was required to bring no less than forty loaves of bread. In addition, the thanksgiving offering together with the forty loaves of bread, had to be eaten the day the offering was offered up until midnight, unlike similar offerings which were allowed to be eaten for two days.

Why does the Torah obligate the person offering thanks to bring so much food and eat it in so short a time? How can one person possibly eat an entire sheep and forty loaves of bread in one day?

The answer, of course, is that it is indeed impossible to eat all that food alone, yet the Torah requires all that food to be consumed in so short a time, specifically in order to ensure that the person does not eat alone.[2] The Torah is teaching that in order to offer thanks to G-d one must celebrate with family, friends and strangers. In order for the thanksgiving to be genuine, the celebration must be shared.

Gratitude is not always an easy feeling to experience. Gratitude requires humility. An arrogant person feels that he is the center of the universe, that he is entitled to all the blessings in his life, and that anything anyone does for him is not enough for he deserves even more. An arrogant person cannot feel grateful. 

To experience the joy of feeling grateful, one must escape the self centered ego. Thus the Torah instructs that no thanksgiving offering may be offered without the key ingredient which is the celebrating and connecting with others. Thus the Torah commands that a sheep and forty loaves of bread must be eaten in one day, in order that the person who was redeemed from a difficult circumstance in the physical sense,  should now liberate himself in the spiritual sense. As an expression of gratitude to G-d for redeeming him from a sorrow, he must reciprocate by freeing himself from the confines of the the self and seeking to connect and share with others.

At the Passover Seder we see how these three themes, humility, sharing and gratitude, are bound together and reinforce each other. During the Seder, as soon as we break the middle Matzah, feeling its texture and internalizing its message of humility, we proceed to tell the story of the Exodus. Yet, we begin not with the story but with an invitation and a declaration that are home is open to the needy:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. 

For as soon as we touch the Matzah we begin to experience its liberating energy, allowing us to transcend the self and feel the pain and need of others.[3]

At the culmination of the story is the powerful Dayenu song, the song of detailed thanksgiving and gratitude for the kindness that has been bestowed upon us.

At the Seder table we experience humility, sharing and gratitude. For spiritual liberty is transcending the self, which allows us to connect to others, and to feel gratitude.



[1] Leviticus 7:12.

[2] See Abarbenel’s commentary.

[3] See the Rebbe’s talks, Passover 5728. 

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