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Parsha Halacha – Parshat VaYikra
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The Torah portion (and Chumash) of Vayikra begins with the word “וַיִּקְרָא/Vayikra” which means, “And he called.” Rashi writes (based on Bamidbar Rabbah 52:5) that the word Vayikra is an expression of love as it is the same expression used by angels to call each other (see Isaiah 6:3). By using this word, G-d was expressing His love for the Jewish people since he was communicating to Moshe, the great prophet of the Jewish people. On the other hand, when communicating with the foremost prophet of the gentile world, Bilaam, the expression used in scriptures is וַיִּקָּר/Vayekar – and He chanced upon (Numbers 23:4). This indicates that G-d’s communication with Bilaam was more like a coincidental occurrence than a matter that G-d really cared about.
They Shall Speak My Praise
The Haftorah of this week also begins with a verse that expresses G-d’s deep love of the Jews: “This people I formed for Myself; they shall recite My praise (Isaiah 43:21).”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this verse expresses many great qualities of the Jewish people:
Our uniqueness is part of the Jew’s very core since we were formed by G-d to be His people. As such, these qualities cannot be removed from us.
A Jew’s qualities are not only apparent in his soul, but also in his faculties and in his physical body (“I formed” is referring to a physical item).
These qualities are found within every single Jew as they are all included in the words “This people.” In addition they are found in the Jews of every single generation (“This people” refers to a people that is present).
As such, every Jew certainly desires to do G-d’s will. One who sins had to have been negatively influenced by his upbringing and by his evil inclination. Were it not for these factors, he would have certainly been righteous.
The very existence of every Jew is a praise to G-d as it indicates that He has protected us and saved us from the many persecutions visited upon us by our enemies. This is especially true in today’s generation coming soon after the holocaust, may G-d protect us.
Since we have inborn G-dly traits, it is natural for all of us to praise G-d (“they shall recite my praise”).
By praising a Jew one is, in fact, also praising G-d who chose and formed us.
Speak Positively about Fellow Jews
Based on this, one should never speak negatively about another Jew even if he is not observant as he, too, is an essential part of “this nation” that has been “formed by G-d.” This is especially true in this generation when most non-observant Jews were never educated in the Torah way. On the contrary, one should find positive things to say about them. By doing so one is also praising G-d who chose us.
In addition since every Jew has innately holy qualities, one should not hesitate to try to influence such a Jew to study more Torah and perform more mitzvot. Since this lifestyle is the natural inclination of every Jew, this task should not be difficult to accomplish if one puts forth a sincere effort.
One who does so will also be benefiting himself, for the spiritual health of the nation is dependent on all of its members just as the acceptability (kashrut) of a Torah scroll is dependent on the proper formation of each letter in that scroll.
If one, G-d forbid, did not follow this path and instead spoke about other Jews in a denigrating manner, he should do Teshuvah immediately by regretting his actions and accepting upon himself never to repeat them. One who spoke in such a negative manner in public should make sure that those who heard him are aware of his teshuvah so that they recognize his mistake and do not do the same themselves.
Examples in Our History
There are several examples of great Jewish leaders who spoke disparagingly about the Jewish people and were reproved by G-d. (The rest of this article is based on the Peleh Yo’etz, entry sanigurya)
When G-d appointed Moshe to redeem the Jews, Moshe said to G-d that the Jewish people would not believe him (Exodus 4:1). G-d immediately reprimanded him and said “What is that in your hand?” I.e., From the behavior that is in your hand, you are liable to be stricken because you have suspected innocent people (Rashi).
Elijah the Prophet
When Elijah said (Kings I 19:10) to G-d that “the hildren of Israel have forsaken Your brit/covenant,” G-d swore that he (Elijah) would be present by every brit milah so that he could see with his own eyes that the Jewish people have not forsaken G-d’s covenant (Yalkut Shimoni Lech Lecha Remez 71).
Isaiah the Prophet
When G-d first appeared to the prophet Isaiah, the prophet exclaimed, “Woe is me for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and amidst a people of unclean lips I dwell.” An angel immediately took a glowing coal from the supernal altar and touched it to Isaiah’s mouth and said “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity shall be removed, and your sin shall be atoned for (Isaiah 6:5-7).” This pain was “to atone for his iniquity of degrading Israel” (Rashi).
The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) says that, many years later, Isaiah was killed in a violent manner. This was a punishment for the above-mentioned manner in which he spoke. According to an ancient scroll found in Jerusalem (quoted in the Talmud ibid), Isaiah was murdered by his own grandson, King Menashe. The king, who was a notorious idolator, accused Isaiah of distorting the Torah of Moshe. Isaiah knew that arguing with him would be pointless so he hid himself by uttering a holy name of G-d, and he was miraculously hidden inside a cedar tree (tzadikim are compared to cedar trees – Ben Yehoyadah). But his tzitzis were sticking out and visible to the king’s servants. (The four tzitzit represent all types of Jews – both the righteous [the two in the front] and the wicked [the two in the back]. The tzitzit sticking out were to indicate that Isaiah was still responsible for the sin of speaking against the different types of Jews – Ben Yehoyada). As such the king had his servants saw through the cedar tree. When the saw reached Isaiah’s mouth, he passed away. (The Ben Yehoyadah explains that he passed away by G-d’s hand as soon as the saw touched his mouth. At that time the cedar tree disappeared and he was given an honorable burial.) The Talmud says that this was a punishment for the disparaging way he had spoken of the Jews as mentioned above.
How Could Isaiah Make this Mistake?
Isaiah was one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. It is therefore not characteristic of him to speak negatively about the Jewish people. Rather, it was a mistake G-d wanted him to make so that he could do teshuvah and thus teach others about the proper way to speak about the Jewish people. A similar statement is made in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 4b) regarding various other sins. In fact, after that misstep, many of Isaiah’s prophecies contain beautiful praises of the Jewish people. For example, see above regarding the first verse of the haftorah. (Isaiah also prophesied harshly about certain events but most of the prophecies for the Jewish people are positive ones.)
People who Spoke Positively about the Jewish People
Many leaders spoke positively to G-d about His people and were rewarded for doing so. For example,
When Gideon was first approached by an angel (before he was appointed as a leader), Gideon said (Judges 6:13), “If the L-rd is with us, why then has all this befallen us? And where are all His wonders which our forefathers told us, saying, ‘Did not the L-rd bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the L-rd has forsaken us, and He has delivered us into the hand of Midian.” Rashi explains that it was Passover and that Gideon said, “Last night my father recited the Hallel and I heard him say, ‘When Israel departed from Egypt, etc.,’ (thus recounting the miracles G-d performed on behalf of Israel,) but now He has forsaken us. If our forefathers were righteous, let Him perform (wonders) for us in their merit, and if they were wicked, then just as He did for them undeserving wonders, so should He do for us. Where then are all His wonders?”
The angel responded and said, “Go, with this your strength, and save Israel from the hand of Midian,” meaning, “With the strength of the merit that you advocated defense for my children (Rashi).” This means that Gideon’s appointment and success as a leader was based on the positive way he spoke about the Jewish people.
Our Patriarch Isaac
The Talmud says (Shabbat 89b) that, in the future time, when G-d is seeking counsel as to how to punish the Jewish people for their sins, our patriarch Isaac will successfully defend us before G-d, and He will forgive us for our sins. For this reason, the Jewish people will refer to Isaac as “our father” in the Messianic era (that title is also used for Abraham and Jacob but will have a special connection to Isaac due to his speaking up in Israel’s defense).
Speech Creates an Angel
The Peleh Yo’etz explains (ibid) that whenever we speak, we create celestial angels. When we speak positive words about somebody, it creates angels that speak positively about him on High. G-d forbid, when one speaks negatively about someone, it creates a prosecuting angel that speaks against him on High.
Rabbi Chanina and the Children of Nechunya
The Talmud (Yevamot 121b) recounts how the daughter of Nechunya, the well digger (so called because he dug wells for the pilgrims to go to Jerusalem), once fell into a well. The people asked Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa to pray for her. He responded that she would be fine. After three hours, she came up and explained that an old man with a ram (our patriarch Abraham) saved her. When they asked Rabbi Chanina how he was so sure that she would be fine, he explained that it would not be fair for Nechunya’s daughter to die from falling into a well since her father’s mitzvah was to dig wells.
Despite this, the Talmud says that at a later time, Nechunya’s son died of thirst. The commentaries question this since, logically, it seems also not fair that the son of Nechunya should die of thirst when his father saved many people from thirst. The Peleh Yo’etz explains that at the time of the first story Rabbi Chanina was alive and his argument was repeated by the angels to G-d which brought about her salvation. Whereas by the time Nechunya’s son died of thirst, Rabbi Chanina had already passed away. Since no human being came forth to present an argument to save him, he was not saved. (Undoubtedly there were other reasons for his deserving death. But had Rabbi Chanina presented his argument, G-d may have changed the decree.)
Speeches in the High Holiday Season
For this reason, those who give speeches, especially during the High Holiday season, should be careful to not mention negative things about the community.
Interrupt the Speech
If one finds himself in a place where the speaker is speaking negatively about the Jewish people, he should gather his courage and argue with the speaker. For example, he can say, “The poverty of the Jews has caused them to sin.” Or “It’s because the Jews are in exile that they behave this way. They have mingled among the gentiles and learned from their ways. They don’t know any better. Their yetzer hara (evil inclination) has gotten the better of them,” and similar arguments.
During a Troubled Time
When it is a troubled time, it is especially important not to speak negatively or mention people’s sins. Foolish people say, “This is the cause or that is the cause.” And “this is the reason for this trouble.” There is definitely a spiritual reason for the trouble, but when someone expresses it, this causes the sin to be mentioned on High and can cause G-d to tip the scales against the person.
[Certainly it is appropriate to encourage people to do teshuvah at a time of trouble. One can even suggest specific areas which need improvement. But, as mentioned, it is not appropriate to attribute the trouble to a particular sin as this can be the cause of more trouble.
In addition, an individual should examine his own actions and try to pinpoint a sin that may be the spiritual cause for his own punishment. But one should not do this to other people.
Although the prophets of old attributed specific punishments with certain sins, they spoke the word of G-d to the people and were not expressing their own opinion.]
One who speaks of others favorably will be spoken about in Heaven favorably.
May G-d deliver us from the current crisis and heal those Jews who need healing, wherever they may be!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!