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Introduction: Winks from Above
As is customary, in the first 30 days after my mom passed away, my family, friends and I split the responsibility for saying the full Mishnayiot, for the purpose of my mom’s aliyat neshama (soul elevation). When I read mine, I noticed right away that my mom’s Hebrew first name was right on top of her Hebrew last name in Hebrew— פרידה צפור — right there in the Mishnah. It was a moment when I felt that she was winking at me, and Hashem was letting me know, It’s ok, your Ema is with you for the rest of your life, as light in infinite recursions.
I was reminded of this as I sat down to dive into this week’s parashah, Metzora. It was a double parashah last year, so I am now writing its own dvar in completion of this five book series… Just then, again, in the first few pesukim (verses), I see not only my mom’s name (צפור), but my Hebrew name, (ארז). It’s what we call hashgacha pratit (Divine providence), when I can see once again that not only is my mother and her soul and memory in the learning and writing that I’m doing, but she is showing me that we are there together, our souls inseparable, our journey in light, infinite.
Staying tapped into hashgacha pratit, seeing Divine providence, requires proactive alignment. There is that feeling inside a positive, inspirational, elevating feeling when one feels tapped into one’s purpose and to one’s Creator, and the opposite feeling when we feel trapped and one’s actions are disconnected from the positive, from purpose, from servitude to our Creator and to others. In the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), sitting on top of the holy ark, were the two Keruvim (winged Cherubs). The Talmud teaches us that each of the cherubs had the image of a child’s face,1 and it is written in the Zohar that one was in the likeness of a boy and the other of a girl.2 When we as a people were in alignment with our Source, the keruvim would face each other, but when we were not, they would face away from each other.
Cracking Shells of Darkness
Indeed, the opposing forces manifest as the yetzer hara (evil inclination) or kelipot. In the world, it’s the outer coverings or “shells” that conceal Godly light. In ourselves, it is the negativity or egocentricity that keeps us from connecting to our true selves as creations with a Divine purpose, which connects us to the Divine light. This negativity or ego is like the shell of a fruit; it does serve to protect the fruit, just as there are times it is useful for our own self-preservation, but it, too, must be removed to get to the sweetness. We have to remove our layers of ego and negativity to get to the root of our being and purpose.
As we keep learning and needing to remind ourselves, our entire purpose is to reveal the Godly light that is concealed throughout Creation and throughout our beings and experiences. I love how Rav Kook open’s his sefer, Orot Hakodesh: “The aspiration for the destruction of the world exists in (visible) realities in all its qualities, like there exists aspiration for its building, its elevation and enhancement. The sublime advice of God (i.e. Providence) is to turn from the entrapments of evil, and to elevate man and the world from the depths of evil to the heights of goodness. And for this are man and the world intended; and for this is evil itself also intended, that in the role of a present essential essence, in its inner content, it will also be elevated and and be turned to goodness, through its recognizing that the aspiration for evil that is in it is directed to the overall enhancement of goodness.”3
In last week’s parashah, Tazria, we learned about tzarot (sad things), and that tzarot come from lashon hara (slander/negative speech), which means one is looking at people and oneself negatively. This ayin hara (evil eye) leads to lashon hara, which means looking at people with a bias towards the left side, the side of gevurah (judgment). As we read these parshiot, we see the word nega (blemish/disease, נגע) repeated; this is a space which encompasses the lowest form of experience. The Ramban teaches the distinction between nega (disease, נגע) and oneg (pleasure, ענג) is only in a change of perspective. Hebrew is read from right to left, and in the word nega (נגע), you see the ayin (ע) is on the left. And, as the Rebbe Rashab taught the Frierdiker Rebbe, if we lead with chesed (loving-kindness), which is when we tap into the right side of the sefirot and our own beings, and look through the right eye, so to speak, the ayin (ע) of goodness leads. And that is when we can move away from nega (נגע) and have oneg (pleasure, ענג), which is the highest form of life experience.4
Life and Death are Dependent Upon the Tongue
One important principle of manifesting good and subduing the bad is by being protective over one’s speech. This parashah opens with how to atone for lashon hara:
וְצִוָּה֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלָקַ֧ח לַמִּטַּהֵ֛ר שְׁתֵּֽי־צִפֳּרִ֥ים חַיּ֖וֹת טְהֹר֑וֹת וְעֵ֣ץ אֶ֔רֶז וּשְׁנִ֥י תוֹלַ֖עַת וְאֵזֹֽב
The Kohen will command the two live, clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop should be taken for the person undergoing purification.5
In the time of the Beit HaMikdash, leprosy would befall the person who spoke negatively, as it’s stated in the Talmud, “Evil gossip kills three: the one who says it, the one who listens, and the subject of the gossip.”6 And as Otto von Bismarck was quoted saying, “better pointed bullets than pointed speech.”
It’s asked why must the person bring two birds to sacrifice? Chazal teach, “Let the chattering birds come and effect forgiveness for the chattering person.”7
We all want a shem tov (good name). People spend their lives trying to protect their reputation. When a person’s reputation takes a hit, especially when it is baseless, they feel powerless, and often afraid and ashamed. ‘Tiu lien’ in Chinese means ‘Lose face’, because it is the feeling of the person whose reputation has been tarnished; they feel unable to show their face in public, or, in a more extreme circumstance, as if they no longer exist as they once did. As it’s written in Mishlei, “Life and death are dependent on the tongue (speech).”8
The Talmud teaches that “just as the learning of Torah equals all other mitzvot combined, so does speaking lashon hora equal all sins combined.” The Chofetz Chayim, who wrote two seforim (books) on lashon hara— Sefer Chofetz Chaim and Sefer Shmiras Halashon— teaches that sinat chinam (baseless hatred) is equal to idol worship, immorality and murder. Which is what the Gemara says regarding lashon hora: “for three sins a person is punished in this world and has no share in the World to Come: idol worship, immorality, and murder — and lashon hara equals them all.”9
Jumping back to the lesson from the Talmud of the three people killed, it’s interesting to note that from there we learn that the person who is damaged most of all is not the one who is gossiping but the one who is listening to the gossip. The reason being that the listener is the one who has the power to stop the lashon hara. The person speaking has already decided to gossip, and the subject of the lashon hara is not physically present in the conversation. Only the listener can change the negative speech into something positive or stop it all together, and so the onus is on the listener.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches that Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, has decreed that Satan’s (the sitra achra) power to accuse us is directly related to how we speak about one another. When we refrain from speaking badly about one another, then Hashem, like a loving father, is willing to overlook our misdeeds. However, when we accuse one another of wrongdoing through lashon hara, we give Satan power to stand before Hashem and accuse us of wrongdoing.
There’s a book by Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg titled, Gossip – Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul, and in it, they break down the Ten Pathways of Positive Speech:
- Speak No Evil – Say only positive statements. Let words of kindness be on your tongue.
- Hear No Evil – Refuse to listen to gossip, slander and other negative forms of speech.
- Don’t Rationalize Destructive Speech – Excuses like “But it’s true” or “I’m only joking” or “I can tell my spouse anything” just don’t cut it.
- See No Evil – Judge people favorably, the way you would want them to judge you.
- Beware of Speaking Evil Without Saying an Evil Word – Body language and even positive speech can bring tremendous destruction.
- Be Humble; Avoid Arrogance – These will be your greatest weapons against destructive speech.
- Beware of Repeating Information – “Loose lips sink ships.” Even positive information needs permission before being repeated.
- Honesty Really Is the Best Policy – Most of the time. Be careful to always tell the truth, unless it will hurt others, break your own privacy or publicize your accomplishments.
- Learn to Say “I’m Sorry” – Everyone makes mistakes. If you’ve spoken badly about someone, clear it up immediately.
- Forgive – If you have been wronged, let it go.10
And almost a thousand years earlier, as reported by the Ben Ish Chai, Rambam, in his perush (explanation) of the Mishnayiot11 divided speech into five categories:
- מצוה בו – (Has a mitzvah within it), which deals with Torah learning, tefilot, and reciting grace and gratitude to Hashem.
- אהוב – (Beloved), which is about the good and superior intellectual qualities of a person.
- מתר – (Allowed), which covers speech that is used on a daily basis for negotiations and to conduct business transactions.
- נזהר ממנו – (Be careful about it), which covers speech which includes lies, flattery (or hypocrisy), gossip (or slander), clowning and other forms of lashon hara.
- נמאס – (Disgusting), which covers “שיחה בטלה” “useless or idle speech”.12
There is a Midrash that tells the story of a peddler who proclaimed, “Who wants life? Who wants life?” Rabbi Yannai approached the peddler, curious as to what elixir he might be peddling that could guarantee long life. The peddler looked at Rabbi Yannai and simply said that neither he nor any talmid chacham would require such an elixir.13 As others inquired, the peddler took out a Tehillim pointing to the pasuk:
מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים…נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע
Which man desires life?… Guard your tongue from evil.14
The Antidote of Song
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches in Likutey Moharan that when someone listens to the singing of someone who is wicked, it’s detrimental to one’s connection to the Creator. But listening to a singer who is virtuous, helps one to connect. Rabbeinu explains that the reason is that the voice is drawn from the birds.15 Kabbalistically, the two birds in our pasuk represent Zeir Anpim and Malchut, which correspond to the voice and speech. The two birds also represent the two Keruvim, (cherubs) on the ark that were the source of prophecy in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). It’s written in the Zohar that these two birds nurse from the same place that prophets nurse.16 Rabbeinu explains that this is why a singer is called ChaZaN (חזן, singer/cantor), from the word ChaZoN (חזון,vision), which connotes prophecy, as we see throughout scripture (e.g. “The chazon of Yeshayahu…).17 This is to say that the chazan takes their song from the same place that the prophets take their prophecy.
Kabbalists explain that music helps banish extraneous thoughts and clear the mind, cutting away impure thoughts (kelipot) that envelop the soul, allowing a person to connect to the Light of the Infinite. Music is also something that can be played in circles infinitely. In fact that is often how the prophets would reach their state of nevuah (prophecy). It would be a repetitive riff being played until it would start to act as a mantra, a meditation, and then prophecy would be reached. As it’s written, “a group of prophets… preceded by a lyre, a timbrel, a flute, and a harp; and then will be prophesying,”18 and “As the musician played, God’s Hand came upon him…”19
Within us all is the power for kedushah (holiness) and/or the power of the sitra achra (the opposing forces). Rabbeinu teaches that when a singer is wicked, they take their song from the other birds, from the kelipah (evil forces), as it’s written in the Zohar that the birds of kelipah nurse from the breasts of Malchut (Kingship).20 And when chatzot (midnight) comes, a cry goes out, as it’s written in Ecclesiastes, “As birds are caught in a trap, so too are men caught/ensnared.”21 This alludes to our becoming trapped in the sitra achra, while “birds” alludes to the two birds of the kelipah that become caught in the trap at midnight. The birds, when aligned like the Keruvim, are that of kedushah, but when they are not aligned and are tied to the kelipah, to the sitra achra, like the Keruvim facing opposite ways, these two birds draw their nourishment from the kelipot. And it is that source of nourishment that causes the entrapment fueled by the opposite of kedushah. However, through the song within ourselves that is holy, the Malchut of holiness is uplifted and elevated so that Hashem’s light is revealed in this world.
Singing in the Dark
At night, one can be drawn to their yetzer hara and busy themselves with desires that take them further away from being connected to the Light of the Infinite. As it’s written The Zohar, “When the night is split (i.e. at midnight), then a call goes out, ‘Like birds caught in a trap, so too are men caught.'” But on the other end, there is an opportunity in the darkness to connect on a deeper level, to wake up from one’s spiritual slumber.
The Zohar and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov stress the importance of Tikkun Chatzot (Midnight Lamentations), which is also the time that King David would play his harp and compose his psalms. It is this act of lamentations that shifts sleep and dreams from a place of Freudian, yetzer hara desires to an elevated space of rejuvenation and connection. King David said, “At midnight, I will rise…”22 as he wrote, “Awake, my glory; awake O harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn”23
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov expands on ruach and rhythm in possibly his most famous and fundamental teaching from Likutey Moharan, Reish Pei Bet (282), also known as “Azamra“ (‘I will sing’). Rabbeinu teaches that judging everyone and yourself favorably, always looking for the good points, is essentially the secret to blessings and happiness. It also ensures switching from a frame of mind of din (judgment) and speaking lashon hara, to one of seeing the good and speaking only positively. Rabbeinu explains that sifting the good from the bad is how melodies are made. And we see this through playing a musical instrument, which gathers the good ruach from the ruach of gloom/depression. In essence, music is made through the separation of good from evil, by selecting and gathering the good points and good notes from the bad; that is how beautiful songs are created. And so, when a person doesn’t let themself fall, but revives oneself by searching and seeking out the good points in themselves and others, gathering and separating those good points from evil and impurity within, this is how melodies of oneself and harmony with each other manifests, this is how we are able pray, sing, and give praise to Hashem in teshuva (a return and a repentance), which brings life, happiness and ultimate unification.24
Rabbi Aharon Kotler reminds us that to be unified and wholehearted with Hashem means not to live a life of contradictions, and that someone who speaks lashon hara lives a life of contradictions. It’s not easy, as it is something that often comes naturally, sharing a story, or an experience involving another person, but the more we are careful to only uplift each other through speech (especially when the person isn’t present) and deed, the more we are aligned with positivity and light. This incredible pianist asked me yesterday what I think the purpose of life is, and I said that it’s to reveal Hashem’s light in this world, to reveal what is concealed. And that is how we shine our own light, which brings forth everyone’s light, which is the only way for us to bring awareness to the light of the infinite and usher in the final redemption.
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Notes & Sources
- Talmud Sukkah 5b
- Zohar Vol. II, 277b
- Rav Kook, Orot Hakodesh, Chapter 1
- Likkutei Dibburim by the Frierdiker Rebbe
- Leviticus 14:4
- Talmud Arachin 15b
- Vayikra Rabbah 16:7
- Mishlei 18:21
- Talmud Yoma 9b
- Gossip – Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul by Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg
- Mishna 19
- Drashot of the Ben Ish Hai Halachot p. 193
- Midrash Rabbah 16:2
- Psalms 34:13-14
- Likutey Moharan I, 3
- Zohar III, 53b
- Isaiah 1:1
- I Samuel 10:5
- 2 Kings 3:15
- Zohar I, 217b
- Ecclesiastes 9:12
- Psalms 119:62
- Psalms 57:9
- Likutey Moharan #282