L’Chaim by Gevura Davis
Shalom dear Chevra,
One of my favorite aspects of the Jewish people is our desire to connect with one another. When I travel with my family, we look very visibly Jewish, as my husband and sons always wear yarmulkes on their heads. People often walk past us in the airport or grocery store and say shalom or give us a knowing smile.
Before I was married, I was sure to always wear a chai necklace for this reason, because I enjoy connecting with other Jews and the feeling of being part of something greater than myself. “The club”, if you will. It’s almost like a secret symbol that connects us, and a statement of our shared values.
What I always find interesting is that although our practices and beliefs often vary greatly among the diverse people who self-identify as Jewish, there are certain core ideals that unite us. One of the most universally known and widely accepted Jewish values is our strong desire and commitment to the preservation and celebration of life. Most Jews know that pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) comes before almost any other Jewish law. We say “l’chaim” when we celebrate or want to bless someone else. We make donations in increments of 18. We would never see murder as a tool of achieving our national goals. The celebration of lifecycle events is a hallmark of our religion and culture.
This week’s Torah portion,Tazria, deals mostly with the laws of how one passes from spiritual impurity to purity in connection with the laws of speech. This form of ritual observance is actually an extension of the beautiful, universal Jewish celebration of life that most agree is the foundation of our religion.
The Torah lists certain ways a person can become spiritually impure. Some are self-inflicted, such as speaking negative speech or coming in contact with a dead person, while others are part of the natural ebb and flow of life, like a woman's menstrual cycle or after a person sleeps. Some forms of ritual impurity require the spiritual washing of the hands while others require full immersion in a mikvah. What is the common denominator of all of these ways to become pure? They each represent a desire to reconnect with human potential, which is in essence the desire to choose life.
Let’s examine the process of spiritual cleanliness about speech mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. In Biblical times, when open miracles that defied the typical laws of nature were common, if a person spoke badly or slanderously about another person, they became afflicted with a spiritual skin infection called tzaarat, which was a state of ritual impurity. The remedy was for a person to completely separate from the community and live for a week outside camp or town, acknowledge their mistakes and do a meaningful repentance, thus going through a deep purification process. Why such a severe punishment and long remedy?
One of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, was known as the Chofetz Chaim, because of his seminal work of that name on the laws of proper speech. The title of his book means “desiring life.” (It’s an interesting side note that in Judaism, we often refer to rabbis by the names of their books.)
Rabbi Kagan writes that if we really desire life, if we value our lives and the lives of others, we will stay far away negative speech. We won’t listen to it, we won’t speak it and we won’t spread it. His title refers to a verse in Psalm 34: “Who is the person who desires life and loves days of goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. Shun evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.”
What is the Torah teaching us? Rabbi Kagan tells us that when we speak badly about another person, it is as if we are destroying three people: the speaker, the subject and the listener. Why are they “dying?” The speaker is wasting his potential for goodness, using words to hurt and not help. The subject’s reputation is damaged, as others will now think badly of him. And, the listener is now thinking negatively about another person.
Words are very powerful. They can either be used for good – to build up, to comfort, to reassure, to praise, to heal. Or they can be used to destroy, to ruin a reputation, to degrade, to complain, to hurt, to criticize. When we use our powerful potential of helping life to instead destroy life through negative speech, we become impure. When we speak negatively about others, we are wasting our potential to choose life, as the verse says.
The amazing thing about Judaism is we always believe in second chances, in the power of forgiveness and the opportunity to start anew, to try harder, to aim for better. We are not doomed for life. We have the opportunity to move from the spiritually impure to the pure by using our free will to change. The Torah describes the seriousness of the challenge, and it also shows us the way out, the way forward to self-improvement. We say Modei Ani every morning; it’s both a prayer of thanks and an affirmation of our potential. G-d has faith in us, is blessing us with the greatest gift, another day, another opportunity to try to use our words for the good. To choose life.
On a personal note, I know how hard it is to avoid negative speech, and I have to talk myself through these ideas on a daily level. Co-workers try our patience (not mine of course); spouses irk us (in theory), friends enjoy discussing other annoying friends (people, it’s hard!). However, if we value our lives and the lives of others, if we truly desire to choose life, we have to strive. Judaism is a religion of ideals, and falling and getting up doesn’t make us hypocrites, it makes us strong and wise.
L’chaim, a blessing to each of us to choose life through our speech today and every day!
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth and Family Division of the Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.