Metzora- The Pill of Life
By Rav Yehoshua Weitzman
The Midrash1 on this week’s parasha relates the following tale regarding lashon hara. “This is the torah of the metzora (leper)”; this refers to the pasuk2 “Who is the man that desires life.” There was once a peddler who used to frequent in the area of Tzippori. He used to call out in a loud voice that he was selling the pill of life. Many flocked to him, in order to purchase such a valued commodity. One day Rabi Yannai was learning, and through the window he heard the peddler in the street. He called down to him “Come up to me and I shall buy your product.” The peddler answered that Rabi Yannai and those similar to him had no need for these pills. Rabi Yannai insisted and the peddler came up to where Rabi Yannai was learning. The peddler took out a book of Tehillim and opened to the pasuk “Who is the man that desires life.” What is written after that? “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” Rabi Yannai exclaimed that Shlomo Hamelech also says3 that one who guards his mouth and tongue guards from tribulations of the soul. He continued that his entire life he read the pasuk in Tehillim and he did not understand it until the peddler showed him “who is the man to desire life.” The Midrash concludes that this is what Moshe warns Bnei Yisrael: “This is the torah of the metzora”- motzei shem ra, one who slanders another.
The fundamental question that arises from the Midrash is what did the peddler teach Rabi Yannai that he did not know before hand? What is the new understanding that Rabi Yannai gained as a result of the peddler? After carefully reading the Midrash, one sees that Rabi Yannai emphasizes the words “Who is the man who desires life.” The answer to these questions lies in this phrase. What does it mean that being cautious about how one speaks comes from a desire for life?
There is a simple allegory that sheds light onto this issue. There were once two cows that were raised by the same person, one for plowing and one that was going to be slaughtered for its meat. The first cow used to bemoan his situation day in and day out. He would be harnessed early in the morning, and would plow the fields hour after hour. He wasn’t fed well and was overtired. Yet his counterpart had “the good life”- he would eat and sleep to his heart’s desire and never a day in his life had to perform excruciating labor. Their master used to chuckle to himself and reflect “A cow that was used in the field builds, his life is one of creation. Yet a cow for the slaughter is only important in its death.” This is a lesson for man- one who looks after his own personal enjoyments is not a man of creation or productivity. Yet man who fills his life with building and learning fulfills his life’s destiny. Every moment to him is precious and his handiwork leaves an eternal imprint.
A cow that is used to plow is a cow whose life is filled with meaning. A cow that is used for its meat is a cow whose life has no meaning, and one only looks forward to the day it dies. There are two outlooks on the world. There are those who see the progress that the world is making, the strides that it is taking to becoming better and more refined. These people take part in this process and help the world inch forward. Scientific revelations and technological progress are steps that the world takes to overcome the current boundaries of time and space and to become more spiritual. Those who are involved in these breakthroughs want to be a part of this change. The other type of person is one who sees the world moving towards destruction. Any invention or revelation brings the world closer to the end, and therefore there is no need to take part in this journey towards nothingness. The first type of person will definitely further the progress of the world, and their life will be full of creativity, for they desire life. The latter do not see any value in life, for they have no positive goals.
Harav Kook zt”l explains4 that there are two outlooks towards the world. The pessimistic outlook sees the world as an evil place and does not recognize the ideals and the good which are part of the world. The optimistic outlook, on the other hand, sees the good of the world, as the pasuk states5 “And Elokim saw all that He made and it was very good.” They see that good and ideals can be found in everything. In his commentary to Modeh Ani6, Harav Kook explains that the first word that a Jew says when he awakens in the morning is “modeh”- thanks. Being thankful for life teaches one to have an optimistic view of the world and to see life as a positive thing. Life is one of the expressions of good in the world. The strength of life is the strength of good and it intensifies the power of good. By speaking positively and seeing the world in a positive outlook one gives life to the world. Lashon hara, slander, and a negative outlook on life are the opposites of life and good and they destroy these two from the core.
Lashon hara, which stems from having a negative outlook on the world, can only be found by people who have a pessimistic view of the world. Those who are optimistic both see and understand that the world is good, and in any case they look at the good in life. They don’t look for blemishes in life because they understand that these points will be fixed. A negative outlook brings man to focus on the bad points in the world, and as a result such a person speaks lashon hara. Rabi Yannai learned from the peddler that if one truly desires life, if one sees life as being good, then there is no place for lashon hara in this world.
There is another story in the Midrash7 regarding Rabi Yannai that can contribute to this message. One day Rabi Yannai was walking and he met a man who wore honorable clothes, like a scholar; he was convinced that the man was a talmid chacham. He went up to the man and invited him to eat with him. After eating and drinking Rabi Yannai began to question him in Chumash, and to his dismay he found that the man did not know anything. He questioned the man on Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah and found that this man knew nothing at all. Rabi Yannai gave his guest the cup of wine in order to say Birkat Hamazon. The guest responded “Let Yannai say the brachot in his home.” Rabi Yannai told his guest to repeat after him; he said “A dog came and ate the bread of Rabi Yannai.” The guest got up and grabbed Rabi Yannai. He accused him “You have my inheritance and you’re withholding it from me! One day I was working near the Beit Midrash and I heard the students saying8 ‘Moshe commanded us the Torah, an inheritance to the Congregation of Ya’akov.’ They didn’t say that the Torah was an inheritance to the congregation of Yannai, rather it was given to all of Yisrael!” Rabbi Yannai understood that he had erred. He asked the guest “What did you do to merit to eat at my table?” He responded that he had never heard slander and repeated it to others and that he never saw two people quarreling and did not make peace between them. Rabi Yannai exclaimed “You have so much Derech Eretz and I called you a dog?!” Rabi Yannai explained that such a man makes the ways of the world beautiful and straight9.
This simple man taught Rabi Yannai a big lesson. In the beginning Rabi Yannai thought that only talmidei chachamim were worthy of eating at his table but that there was no room for simpletons. He thought that only the Torah was good, but the world by itself had no purpose. After his encounter with the guest Rabi Yannai learned that the world in and of itself (even without Torah) is a source for derech eretz and good. Hashem created the world and, in addition to the Torah, made it a source of good. Rabi Yannai’s humility allowed him to learn this important lesson from his guest. The peddler, who appears in the first Midrash, also taught Rabi Yannai an important lesson in derech eretz. Life by itself has Godly value, and he who desires and wants to guard life will also guard himself from lashon hara. For evil is the enemy of life and lashon hara is its weapon.
"מי האיש החפץ חיים, אוהב ימים לראות טוב. נצור לשונך מרע ושפתיך מדבר מרמה"