A line in a certain Shakespearean play (R & J) reads “A plague on both your houses,” and though it was not referring to the tzara’as (‘leprosy’) which begins to feature in our sedra, it very well could be. And unfortunately, we often relate to the tzara’as portions as being equally archaic to those plays, for we do not experience tzara’as openly nowadays. Let’s point out a timeless message which lies at the very heart of the portions dealing with this tzara’as [I heard the core of this at Purim seudah from R’ Jonny Hamilton]. There are three types of tzara’as; on the body, on clothes, and on houses. One thing they have in common is the centrality of the Kohen in their establishment. A stain is not considered tzara’as until the Kohen has examined it and declared it to be tzara’as, as Rashi (13;2) points out. The Dubner Maggid asks a penetrating question here; What exactly is the purpose of the Kohen declaring the suspected tzara’as impure to be tzara’as? It cannot be to give a halachic ruling as to the status of the suspected tzara’as, for the Kohen’s declaration occurs [and is necessary] even if the Kohen is not at all knowledgeable
in relation to the suspected leper. And it does not seem accurate to say that the Torah fixed the Kohen’s declaration as necessary to create the tzara’as (chalos), for tzara’as is based upon facts as to the colour and size of the stain – it is not spiritually created by the utterance/declaration of the Kohen; it is a reality unto itself. So what exactly is the Kohen doing when he declares the stain to be tzara’as? The Dubner Maggid answers that the declaration that the stain is indeed tzara’as in front of the guilty party is so that he realises and admits to himself that he is at fault. It is often difficult to admit that one is at fault; one naturally brings up all forms of justifications and claims to relieve oneself of fault and responsibility – even though one would not extend the extent of these justifications to others who have done wrong to relieve them of guilt. I once once that this is the meaning of the pasuk which closes the shir shel yom of Shabbes; ‘(HaShem) is my Rock and there is no wrong/fault in Him.’ Why do we use this phrase of ‘there is no fault in Him,’ which seems to imply that one might have thought that there was a fault in Him; why not just say ‘and He is perfect,’ or words akin to those phrased in the positive? The answer is that we are saying that ‘there is no fault in Him’ – but there is fault in us. We often justify our actions and even blame HaShem for them; in this pasuk we are declaring that we shoulder the responsibility and fault for our wrongdoings.
The Dubner Maggid continues and defines exactly which justification it is that the Kohen is doing away with via his declaration. There are two types of self-justifications. When the wrongdoing is one of action (maaseh), the justification broadly speaking is that ‘I did not do that action.’ But when the wrongdoing is but via speech (dibbur), the justification is ‘speech/ words do not really make a difference; it does not really create effects/damage.’ Since the tzara’as was caused by abuse of the gift of speech (lashon hara), when the Kohen utters the one word ‘tamei’ (‘impure’), the offender realises that speech does indeed have effects, as now he is to go through to the purification process and temporary separation from his family, so the root causes of the sin will be removed; the devaluing the worth of speech.
Perhaps this also explains the presence of the kol nidrei prayer before Yom Kippur. This is a prayer annulling vows that really can be done all year round; why do we fix it right before the first prayer of Yom Kippur? For on Yom Kippur we go through the awesome task of correcting all our wrongdoings simply via the power of speech. Sincere prayer and teshuva has the effect of turning back time and going back to each situation we sinned and correcting it. In order to harness and utilise these effects of dibbur, one must first realise that dibbur has the power to create real effects and consequences. And this is why we start Yom Kippur with kol nidrei; for it deals with the consequences of an oath – something created via speech alone – in our needing to observe it meticulously or annul it. In other words, kol nidrei provides us with the introductory and key message to the success of one’s Yom Kippur – that speech creates real effects. The halachic application of this point is seen in the something the Chofetz Chaim writes in his mishna brura (250;2). He writes that everything one buys (or does) for Shabbes should be accompanied by you uttering the words ‘this is for the honour of Shabbes’ [‘lekavod Shabbes’], because ‘dibbur has great effects of kedusha.’
There is a story which illustrates this rather well. There is a large shechita factory in Argentina; apart from the places to slaughter the animals, there is a huge freezer room to store the meat. This factory had a large number of workers, and amongst them two shomrim to make sure all is done according to halacha. One evening, the manager was about to lock the factory, when the security guard insisted ‘wait; there are people inside.’ The manager eventually agreed to look round the factory, and found the two shomrim inside the freezer room; they had been locked in accidentally and would not have survived the night if they would not have been found. The manager asked the guard how he knew that there were still people inside, and the guard told him the following: ‘Each day, all the workers come and go and do not even give me any form of recognition. These two fellows always say good morning to me at the start of their day, and good evening when they leave. Today I realised that I had not yet received my good evening greeting, and so figured that they must still be inside.’ A similar story is told about the Bluzhever Rebbe in the holocaust, who was pointed to the ‘life’ line in the death camps by virtue of the fact that before the war he had greeted the officer in charge (whom he knew from his city) each day.
In fact, if one looks carefully, one notices that we are never truly hurt by someone’s actions, but rather by the ‘speech’ within those actions. Let’s illustrate this; the example works best with children. If, for example, one bangs into a wall, though this hurts, one does not get particularly upset or cry. If, however, one sustains this same force, but by someone else hitting you, then one gets upset and even cries. Why; the physical force was the same in each case? It is because we do not get upset at suffering the physical force itself; we are upset at the idea that someone purposefully wanted to make us suffer that force and so hit us. In other words, it is the implication of his actions that he wanted to hurt us that we really take offence at; and this is essentially his speech – the conveying of his intentions. So too are we hurt by the thought that someone wanted to harm us, even if they did not manage to carry this out. In short, the subtle point is that often even when we think that it is the actions that create the effects, it is really the speech within those actions that is doing the damage. To end with a story. My Rabbi had just moved alone to Mir Yeshiva, and with a student body numbering three thousand (today five thousand), he felt quite lost there. On one of his first days, three boys came up to him pretending to be ‘the Mir welcoming committee’ and offered to help him whenever necessary; he says he will never forget that moment. [The sequel is that he later decided to do the same, and went over to someone and welcomed them to the yeshiva as part of ‘the Mir welcoming committee,’ only to discover that this person had been learning in the yeshiva for five years!]
The point is that words and speech do make a real difference and create real effects, even if they are not always as visible to the eye as actions are, Have a great Shabbes