Parshas Tetzaveh (5772)
In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Tetzaveh, we find a detailed description of the Bigdei Kehunah, or priestly garments, that the High Priest wore as he performed the daily service in the Tabernacle. The Talmud in Arachin 16a explains that each of these garments atoned for different sins. One of the outer garments that the High Priest wore was the Me'il, or Robe. The Me'il was made entirely of turquoise wool, and was worn over the head like a poncho. [For a picture of the Me'il and the other priestly garments, see pp. 465-473 in the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash.]
Hanging all around the Me'il's hem were pomegranate-shaped tassels of turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, and among the pomegranates were golden bells, each with a ringer. The Talmud (ibid) tells us for whom these bells tolled It states that the noise made by the bells of the Me'il atoned for the sin of the "noise" made by one who speaks Lashon Hara (gossip). What is the exact connection between the bells on the Me’il and the sin of gossip, and what was the purpose and symbolism of the pomegranate-shaped tassels that surrounded the bells?
During the Prayer Service at the Synagogue, right before we begin the Amidah, or Silent Prayer, we say the short prayer, "Lord, open up my lips, and let my mouth tell Your praises". Why are we asking G-d to open up our lips? Were they surgically closed so that we have to ask G-d to help us open them?!
The commentaries explain that the tongue is that part of the mouth that is used for talking. The purpose of the lips, however, is to serve as a guard for the tongue, so as to keep our mouths shut and not to engage in all types of evil chatter and gossip throughout the day. (As the old saying goes …. Loose lips sink friend-ships!) This way, when we approach G-d in prayer, we can proclaim to Him, "Lord, I have kept my lips shut till now, so now allow me to open them so that my mouth can utter Your praises".
This idea of guarding our speech by keeping our lips tightly closed and only talking when we have something important to say, is symbolized by the bells and pomegranates of the Me'il. The bells with the ringers inside them resemble an open mouth with a tongue wagging inside it. The pomegranates resemble a mouth tightly shut. Each golden bell was surrounded by a pomegranate on either side to remind us of our responsibility to think twice before we speak. In this way, we atone for the sin of Lashon Hara.
After describing the Me'il, the Torah adds, "It must be on Aaron in order to minister. Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before G-d ....” (Exodus 28:35) The commentaries explain, homiletically, that the "sound" that the Torah refers to is the sound of our prayers. If we are careful to guard our tongues carefully throughout the day, and not to defile them through all types of forbidden speech such as Lashon Hara, then the prayers that we mouth to G-d will be heard when we enter the Sanctuary. But if, G-d forbid, we are not careful about what comes out of our mouths, then when we choose to use that mouth for our prayers, what we say just might be ignored.
Guarding our tongues from speaking gossip and slander is not just a "nice thing to do" - it is one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. G-d demands from us that we think before we speak. We can't afford not to because the stakes are too high, as it says in Proverbs 18:21, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue". We can literally destroy a person's life with a few words carelessly spoken among a group of people. And we therefore have a tremendous responsibility to choose our words carefully, and to keep our mouths closed when we have nothing to say.
Now this it is not an easy job! The Talmud in Chullin 89a states that man's profession in this world is "to make himself a mute". The great pre-war Torah sage, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen, who became known to all as the "Chofetz Chaim", (the name of a great and scholarly work that he authored on the laws of Lashon Hara - see below), explained this strange Talmudic passage as follows:
A person who aspires to construct a certain machine, even if he has very clear ideas in his head exactly how he is going to build it, will still find the job very difficult in practice because he lacks the professional training. The same holds true with the art of being silent when we have nothing good to say. Even though we have a clear idea in our heads just how bad it is to speak negatively about another person, when it comes to real life, it is extremely difficult to refrain from Loshon Hara. It is simply not enough for us to say that we are going to be careful about Loshon Hara from now on. What we really need, the Talmud is teaching us, is to undergo "professional mute training" in order to get ourselves accustomed to keeping silent when the opportunity to gossip presents itself …. which is pretty much all the time!!
To help us along in our “mute training”, I would like to recommend a wonderful book which covers all the laws of Loshon Hara and slander called Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson A Day (Artscroll Mesorah Publications). It discusses, among other things, such issues as when Lashon Hara is permitted or even required, i.e., when warning a person about potential harm, for example, a potential business or marriage partner. This book is required reading for anyone who wants to grow in this very difficult area of guarding the tongue.
And for those who are into learning online, there is a really good series of articles called Halashon which also covers most of the laws of Lashon Hara, and which can be accessed by clicking on: http://www.torah.org/learning/halashon/. Or, to receive a daily e-mail on the laws of Lashon Hara taken from the highly popular Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson A Day, just visit the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation website online at www.chofetzchaimusa.org and e-mail email@example.com to subscribe.