Wherever we go in today’s society, we are bombarded by ads about what we should and should not be putting in our mouths. The ads tells us to eat this so that we can lose weight; to not eat that because it could raise our cholesterol; to make sure that we don’t let our babies drink anything from a BPA plastic container; and we constantly hear promises of how ingesting a certain product will make us strong, beautiful, and healthy. But what about what comes out of our mouths
If our tradition teaches us anything, it is the power of words… for good or evil, pain or joy. In this week’s portion the great prophetess Miriam is stricken with tzaraas, a type of skin infliction that is similar to leprosy. Our Sages are clear as to why: she slandered Moses by both insulting his wife, and then claiming that HaShem speaks with her as well. As a result of what comes out of her mouth, she is stricken with disease and quarantined outside the camp; and only the prayerful words of her brother Moses lead to her healing. “Please G-d, heal her now.” (Num. 12:13)
There is a vital teaching here that we need to remember at all times. When we speak ill of another person, we are creating a disease that affects the entire community. Like a disease that is easily passed from one to another, the rumors and gossip that we say affect not only the person about whom we speak: but directly hurt the world. All of us have been affected by someone spreading a rumor, and we all know how difficult it is to eliminate a rumor once it has been started. Like tzaraas; rumors, gossip, and slander change the way that we perceive someone at such a basic level that the entire community becomes contaminated. “Lashon Hara”, the “evil tongue”, hurts everyone… especially the person who is expressing it.
I once heard about a Rabbi of whom it was said that “only pearls fall from his mouth”. When I was younger, I thought that meant that he always spoke words of wisdom; but later realized that the deeper meaning is that he never said a bad thing about anyone. He always had the ability to find the good in people and to express it verbally. How much better would our world, our workplace, and our relationships be if we remembered to act similarly? And when you looked at this Rabbi, you could see that he truly was filled with the light of HaShem simply by the intangible glow that filled a room when he smiled or taught. In contradiction to the act of Miriam in this week’s portion, his skin was filled with light as opposed to tzaraas.
This week’s portion reminds us to be careful of the words we speak, and how they can hurt us. But it also gives us a powerful reminder about the strength of meaningful words and their ability to affect even G-d. Moses’ prayer for his sister was not a long, drawn out affair. He did not give a twenty minute sermon about how and why Miriam should be healed. He did not offer an intellectual or erudite prayer composed of fancy sayings and long words. Moses just prayed simply and from his heart. “El nah r’fah nah la”… Please G-d, heal her now.” It is this type of prayer, the simple one from the depths of our souls that carries with it the ability to bring healing and beauty into the world.
As we enter into the summer, we will hear about all the things that we need to eat so that we can look good in those bathing suits. But we need to remember that it is even more important to focus on what comes out of our mouths. As Jews, we need to remember to speak well of each other especially during debates, arguments, and in times of stress. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, considered the founder of the Mussar movement, said, “Writing is easy, erasing is difficult”. We need to be careful about our words, remembering that what is once said cannot be taken back so easily.
There is a wonderful tradition that we should end each conversation with a friend with words of Torah; a nice way to insure that we pay respect to each other at the end of any encounter. I pray that each of us will be able to watch our words, and be aware of the power that they have on others. May we all be blessed to speak simply and from our hearts; to avoid gossip of any sort; and to let our words be words of support and caring for each other at all times.
Kavannah: Make it an extra point to refrain from gossip this week. But this week, add the practice of ending every conversation with a friend with either an insight, teaching, or especially kind word. As your conversations conclude with depth and joy, you will find your outlook on life to also be happier and fuller.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
June 16th, 2022
17th of Sivan, 5782