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Parashat Tetzaveh 5774 — 02/05/2014

Parashat Tetzaveh 5774 — 02/05/2014

And these are the garments that they shall make: a Breastplate, an Ephod [apron], a Me’il [cloak]… (Shemos 28:4)

Chazal explain that the Me’il of the kohen gadol [with its bells attached to the bottom hem] atoned for the sin of lashon hara [lit. evil tongue, any kind of improper or disparaging speech]. Hashem ordained, ‘An object that produces sound shall come and atone for a [sin] involving sound” (Arachin 16a).

   [The color of the Me’il also played a role in gaining atonement:] You shall make the Me’il of the Ephod completely out of techeiles [blue wool] – for techeiles is like the color of the sea, the sea is like the color of the sky, and the sky makes one think of the Throne of Glory. Thus, by means of the techeiles, one is reminded that eventually he will stand in judgment before the Throne of Glory. We find in Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu that lashon hara itself ascends all the way to the Throne of Glory, as is hinted by the verse, They set their mouth in heaven but their tongue rambles on earth (Tehillim 73:9). [Seeing the kohen gadol] dressed in the Me’il made of techeiles, one will be prompted to think about the destination and impact of his speech, and be careful to avoid lashon hara.

   [The form of the Me’il includes this description:] V’hayah pi rosho b’socho – “Its opening (lit., mouth) at the top shall be turned inward” (Shemos 28:32). This hints at what our Sages teach about the verse, Toleh eretz al blimah – “He suspends the earth on nothingness” Iyov 26:7). [Picking up on the double meaning of blimah – “nothingness” and “muzzling”] our Sages expound, Hashem keeps the world in existence only in the merit of those who muzzle their mouths, saying nothing at a time that is ripe for an argument (Chulin 89a). [Yes, he keeps his “mouth turned inward”] as he holds back from saying a word to avoid strife.  (Chafetz Chaim)

The Chafetz Chaim is perhaps best known as a crusader for proper speech, so it is fitting that he discusses at some length (I’ve only quoted part of his remarks) the issue of proper speech in our portion.  The laws of proper speech are quite strict and quite extensive; I would highly recommend to everyone that they get Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day, (available for $24 in hardcover from Artscroll: and start moving in the direction of proper speech – it’s that important.

We generally think of speech as “mere words,” or (especially in the case of politicians) “so much hot air.”  The Torah’s view of speech is quite different.  To begin with, the universe was created through speech – Gd’s speech.  And Gd said, “Let there be light!”  And there was light.  I can’t begin to fathom what Gd’s “speech” must be like, however  the fact that Torah uses the terminology of speech indicates to us that whatever this phenomenon is, it bears some resemblance, on some level, to the speech with which we are familiar.  Gd’s speech was responsible not only for creating the universe, it also sustains it every moment of every day.  Were Gd to stop “speaking” the universe, it would simply cease to exist, Gd forbid!

In the second chapter of Bereishit Gd creates Man “in His image.”  Since speech is apparently such a salient part of Gd, it is not surprising that Gd gives humankind the facility of speech as well.  Torah tells us that Gd blew into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and [Adam] became a living soul.  Onkelos famously translates this as a speaking soul.  And when Gd wants to know what to call all these animals that He’s just created, he turns to Adam, and whatever Adam called them, that was their name.  So our speech too, can create reality, in some way reflecting Gd’s speech.  One major difference, of course, is that our speech can create a negative reality as well as a positive one.  This power of speech is why the halachic rules regarding proper and improper speech are so far-ranging and strict.

We don’t have to go into deep Kabbalistic concepts to understand how damaging negative speech can be.  This year, 2013, was an off-year in US politics, so we were spared the constant barrage of negative campaign ads that typically characterize Federal and major state elections.  Any internet news site with a talkback feature will give further evidence of the breakdown of civil discourse.  International demonization of Israel has reached new lows.  Unfortunately, Israel itself is not immune to improper speech, even among some in the Orthodox community who should know better.  When people, or nations, cannot talk civilly with one another, the possibility of cooperation is precluded and the likelihood of physical violence is enhanced.

All this is on the surface level.  Our Sages teach us that the damage of improper speech goes much deeper than this.  We are told that when one speaks in a derogatory manner (even if the information is true!) about someone else, that person’s sins get “credited” to our account, while they get credit for our merits.  How might this work?  When we put our attention on someone else’s faults, we are identifying in some way with those very faults.  In fact, the faults that we have in ourselves are often the ones we can see most clearly in others, or that we project into others.  Perhaps in that case our negative speech is a symptom of our underlying issues rather than a cause of them.

R. Heshy Kleinman, in his book Praying With Fire (Artscroll, Brooklyn, NY, 2005) provides another example.  Gd created us so that we would recognize and draw near to Him.  The primary mechanism by which we draw close to Gd is through prayer, which is a function of speech.  If we pollute our faculty of speech, what happens when we go to pray?  What comes out is polluted, like an email infected with a virus, which (hopefully) gets caught and deleted by the recipient’s virus scanner.  R. Kleinman gives the example of a skilled surgeon who performs an operation with contaminated instruments.  All his skill goes for naught, because his instruments, not his skill, are the source of the problem.  It is impossible to switch from negative speech one minute to holding a conversation with Gd the next.  R. Kleinman suggests that if our prayers are not being answered, the first place we should look at is what is coming out of our mouths all the time when we are not praying.

R. Yisrael Salanter once said that it takes a lifetime to correct one character trait.  I know that I have struggled all my adult life with issues of improper speech and have only made a little progress.  Nevertheless, the improvement even in my outer life has certainly been worth the effort, let alone in my spiritual life.  If we want to improve our world, the first place we should start is with our tongues (and I’m not talking Miley Cyrus here either!).  You don’t have to go a whole lot farther than what your mother taught you: If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.


Shemoneh Esrei

We gratefully thank/acknowledge You, for You are Hashem, our Gd and Gd of our forebears forever.

Rock of our lives, Shield of our salvation, You have been throughout the generations.

We thank/acknowledge You and tell Your praises

For our lives which are given into Your hands,

And for our souls which are entrusted to You,

And for Your miracles which are with us every day,

And for Your wonders and Your goodness at every time, morning, noon and night….

This middle b’rachah of the three b’rachot of thanksgiving is very clearly and explicitly about thanksgiving.  The word that expresses “giving thanks” in Hebrew is l’hodot, from which we get the name of this b’rachah, Modim.  As I have indicated in the translation of the b’rachah (actually, the first part of the b’rachah, which Gd willing I will finish next week), the word modim / we give thanks, can also be rendered we acknowledge.  In fact, in order to give thanks, we have to first acknowledge that someone has done something good for us and deserves our thanks.  One would think that with Gd this would be easy.  After all, Gd gave us our lives, which are in His hands, and our souls, which are entrusted to Him, and His miracles are with us every day (all the time).  Nonetheless, in our frantic desire to stake out our individuality, we have concocted theories and philosophies that assert just the opposite.

The idea of acknowledging Gd’s existence and continued sustenance of the universe is fundamental to our role as Jews.  The word Jew comes from Yehudah, from which tribe the majority of us are descended.  Yehudah was Leah’s fourth son.  When he was born (in Parashat Vayetze) Leah exclaimed, “Now I will thank/acknowledge Hashem” and she called him Yehudah (from the same root as modim).  Our miraculous existence is itself testimony to Gd’s existence.  There is a famous story where King Louis XIV asked the philosopher Pascal if he could prove that Gd exists.  Pascal immediately replied, “Why the Jews, Your Majesty, the Jews!”  (The story is also told of Bismarck and the German Kaiser and other pairs of protagonists as well.)  If not for Gd’s intervention in Sarah and Rivka’s pregnancies we never would have gotten off the ground, and if not for Gd’s continued protection those who wished to exterminate us would surely have succeeded Gd forbid.  So we acknowledge Him as being with us from generation to generation.

On a more personal level, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we always have something to be thankful for.  Perhaps it is family or friends, perhaps it is a special teacher, perhaps it is even what we have learned from meeting the challenges of life.  Perhaps it is simply being alive.  We are alive because Gd breathed into us the breath of life, and we have a spiritual life because Gd has given us a soul (or better, Gd has created us as souls, inherently spiritual beings).  Every breath we take, every thought we think, every action we perform, all come from Gd, and it is up to us to acknowledge that, primarily to ourselves, but outwardly as well, by living our lives in a way that demonstrate our faith and belief that Gd is all that is, was or ever will be.

Modim is said during every prayer service, daily, Shabbat, holidays, Yom Kippur, musaf – every one.  It’s a good time to reflect on all the blessings Gd has given us.  Yes, it’s that important!