Weekly Torah Commentary — Yom Kippur October 7-8, 2011

The holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur – falls on this Shabbat. We read in Vayikra/Leviticus 16:
And [all this] shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work neither the native nor the stranger who dwells among you.
For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.
31. It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute.

Of the many areas for repentance each of us could ponder, for our purposes here, let us focus on this – errors, transgressions, and sins of the mouth. Why do I choose this one? The first sin in Gan Eden involved two aspects of the mouth – something that came out and something that went in: speech and food.

When non-observant people talk about how difficult it is to observe the Torah, they usually refer to observing Shabbat or keeping kosher or other similarly detailed practices of Jewish life. Yet the laws that are most difficult to keep, that are most commonly violated even by observant Jews, are the laws regarding improper speech. This is a very important area of Jewish law; entire books have been written on the subject.

Judaism is intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech. The rabbis note that the universe itself was created through speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheit confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially: money lost can be repaid, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired. A Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”

There are two mitzvot in the Torah that specifically address improper speech: You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev. 19:16), and you shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17, which according to tradition refers to wronging a person with speech).

Tale-bearing is, essentially, any gossip. The Hebrew word for tale-bearer is “rakhil” (Reish-Kaf-Yod-Lamed), which is related to a word meaning trader or merchant. The idea is that a tale-bearer is like a merchant, but he deals in information instead of goods. In our modern “Information Age,” the idea of information as a product has become more clear than ever before, yet it is present even here in the Torah.

The person who listens to gossip is even worse than the person who tells it, because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. It has been said that lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech) kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Talmud Arachin 15b).

In Jewish law, all things are considered to be secret unless a person specifically says otherwise. Nor is there any time-limit on secrets. The Talmud tells the story of a student who revealed a secret that he had heard 22 years earlier, and he was immediately banished from the house of study! (Talmud Sanhedrin 31a)

The worst form of tale-bearing is lashon ha-ra (literally, “the evil tongue”), discrediting a person or saying negative things about a person, even if those negative things happen to be true. Actually, true statements are even more damaging than false ones, because you can’t defend yourself by disproving the negative statement if it’s true! Judaism considers lashon ha-ra equal to murder, idol worship, and incest/adultery (the only three sins that you may not violate even to save a life).

It is forbidden to even imply or suggest negative things about a person. It is forbidden to say negative things about a person, even in jest. One who tells disparaging things that are false is referred to as a motzi sheim ra, that is, one who spreads a bad report. This is considered the lowest of the low.

It is generally not a sin to repeat things that have been told “in the presence of three persons.” The idea is that if it is told in the presence of three persons, it is already public knowledge, and no harm can come of retelling it. However, even in this case, you should not repeat it if you know you will be spreading the gossip further.

And what of the other ‘sin’ of them mouth – eating? Surely Hashem has given us food for sustenance and there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good food He created for us. However, we too often forget that the reason we eat is to nourish our bodies so we can serve Hashem. To eat simply for personal pleasure may not be a terrible transgression but it is at the very least far below the level of holy living that is our calling. (We are not even discussing here the Kosher laws for it is understood that obeying them is fundamentally basic to a Jewish life). I am talking more about why we eat what we do eat.

If our true desire — as we say in the Shema each day — is to love Hashem with all our heart and soul and to walk in His ways, it stands to reason that we would take responsibility to properly care for the bodies He has given us, bodies through which we express our service to Him. Therefore it becomes a mitzvah to eat those things which promote health, not just so we can feel good, but much more importantly, so we can honor Hashem throughout our life on this earth.

Careless speech (speaking with taking care to control our words) and careless eating (eating with no thought of Hashem but only of our own pleasure) are two sins of the mouth that deserve our self-examination in these last couple of days before the awesome Day of Atonement.

Keep in mind as you prepare for this holy day that repentance really means “to return”. It is not about bemoaning the past year and dwelling on the mistakes we made. It IS acknowledging where we have missed the mark and setting our hearts “to return” to Hashem and His Torah in the areas where we have failed in the past year.

May His overwhelming mercy be your portion as you stand before the King this Shabbat in humility. Embrace His forgiveness as His mercy embraces you.

Yom Kippur is truly a day to be as one ‘born anew’ with a completely fresh start in life.

In Tune with Torah this week = humble yourself before Him and receive His forgiveness and cleansing.

Gmar hatima tova – may you be sealed for a good year.

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