By Rabbi Dr. Tal Sessler of Sephardic Temple
In Judaism, words are holy and sacred. The opening chapter of the Torah teaches us that the world was created by Divine speech. Words are powerful in Jewish spirituality. So much so, that the concluding book of the Torah, Devarim, literally means: “Words”.
Moreover, in the opening paragraph of the Shema, we find no less than three times an allusion to the centrality of words and speech in our tradition: “The words which I command you this day…Speak them at home and on the road…and write them on your doorposts.” And the Ten Commandments are literally translated from Hebrew as “The Ten Divine Utterances/Speeches”.
However, the Torah is also conscientious of the fact that the Divine gift of speech can be abused to perpetrate evil and spread negativity. Notice that Moses was not a man of words. Moses pleads before God: “Lo Eesh devarim anochi” (“I am not a man of words”). Moses states that he is “aral sefatayim” (“Of uncircumcised lips”); that he is no great orator.
I believe that by electing Moses, a man devoid of verbal virtuosity, as Judaism greatest spiritual figure, the Torah is conveying to us something profound and essential about the duality of words and speech as doubled-edged swords.
Famously, the sages caution us that vile speech is paramount to shedding blood, to character assassination.
In the 20th century, many of Europe’s leading writers espoused vicious totalitarian regimes. Jean-Paul Sartre of France supported Stalin, Martin Heidegger of Germany became a Nazi, and Michel Focault endorsed the Islamic Revolution in Iran, (to name but a few).
By the end of the 20th century, humanity learned a bitter and frightful lesson: words can also lead to dehumanization, to murder, and to genocide. Which brings us, finally, to a central theme and leitmotif in this week’s Torah portion, “Tazria”.
The commentators explain that the skin ailment known in the Torah as “Tzara’at“, comes about as a result of negative speech. Those who violate language, implies the Torah, are culpable of a grave offense against God and man.
Therefore, asserts the Torah, such individuals are sanctioned by being temporarily removed from the bounds of normative society, in order to cleanse themselves, and engage in self-reflection and soul-searching.
So let us not be unconditionally magnetized and mesmerized by the alluring and enchanting appeal of great rhetoric. Let us also scrutinize the underlying message and actual content of the spoken and written word. This is a timeless lesson from this Torah portion, one in which humanity learned the hard way, all-too-often, and all-too-tragically, during the 20th century. Let us not repeat this mistake again, be it on the political or the inter-personal level.
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.