Peddler's Preaching

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Although Tzoraas is a dreaded disease, the Torah provides “doctor”/priest and the physical ritual necessary necessary to enable its cure. But a medrash provides the method for avoiding this disease entirely and indeed for prolonging one’s life. The Medrash relates that a peddler, while hawking his wares near Tzippori, was shouting, “Who wants to buy an elixir of life?” Rabbi Yannai, an Amora (expounder of Talmudic text, 200-500 C.E.) approached and asked to buy such an elixir. The peddler refused, explaining that Rabbi Yannai had no need of this elixir. After Rabbi Yannai persisted, the peddler took out a Tehillim and pointed to the verse, “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit (34:13-14).Rabbi Yannai seemed to be awestricken by this interpretation, saying, “All my life I read this verse and I did not understand how to interpret it until this peddler came along and informed me that it refers to a person who desires life.”

            This is certainly the simple meaning of the verse. Why was Rabbi Yannai so taken with this interpretation? Rabbi Pincus z”l posits that sometimes, when something is so obvious, we completely overlook its deep meaning. This gift of simplicity was the gift of a simple peddler, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai, that he opened the eyes of Rav Yannai to the profundity of this verse. How many of us still recite the Shema with its full depth of meaning, or experience the full beauty of the peace of Shabbat each week? (I [c.k.s.] recently read an ad for a hotel that would provide a unique experience for its guests; they would be required to leave all their technological and communication devices at the front desk upon check in. I’m sure it was a much more expensive vacation, not listed as a retreat, than our own beautiful Shabbat.)

            Most of us learn the laws of loshon horo, but how many of us internalize its lessons? The Chofetz Chaim, who personified adherence to this mitzvah, literally wrote the book about it, and yet spoke abundantly with others, but did not speak loshon horo himself. The story is told that when the Chofetz Chaim was already in his eighties, someone approached him and asked him about living a long life. Opening his mouth, the Chofetz Chaim told the man to check out his teeth. Interesting, even at this age, the Chofetz Chaim still had a full set of perfect teeth. This he attributed to never allowing the contamination of loshon horo to infect his mouth.

            But perhaps this peddler’s insight was the result of personal experience, Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim quotes the Ishbetzir Rav that perhaps in fact he had once been a peddler of gossip, but when he did teshuvah, he felt a new lease on life and wanted to share it with others. His teshuvah was full and profound. Rabbi Yannai had never seen anyone who actually exemplified this verse so completely. It was this realization that so impressed the Amora.

            Rabbi Reiss then cites an analogy presented by Rabbenu Yonah, an analogy that will perhaps disgust us enough that we will try our utmost to forswear speaking loshon horo again. The human animal may resemble a dog who eats dirty and despicable things off all kinds of filthy surfaces. He then often regurgitates them. But instead of walking away to find healthier nourishment, he again eats that same food, now even more disgusting. In a similar way, we often pick up ugly pieces of information, spit it out to others, but then go back, take it up and spit it out again and again without considering or caring about the harm we may already have caused.

            Have we not learned the lesson from Miriam, whose loshon horo about Moshe was so minimal and spoken out of love, and yet she was stricken with tzoraas? Do we not see how dangerous it is when our walls and clothing can also miraculously be stricken as a result of our sin? As the saying goes, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” The peddler is trying to teach us not to fall into his trap, but if we do, we should reflect and repent.

            Rabbi Roth  z”l in Sichot Eliyahu makes an interesting connection between Parshat Metzorah and Sefirah, the time of year when this Parsha is traditionally read. This period has become a time of mourning for the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who all died during this period. Citing the Maharsha, Rabbi Roth z”l notes that the disciples all died of ascarah, the same plague that afflicted the spies in the desert upon their return from Canaan. Since the punishment was the same, the sin must also have been similar. The spies died for speaking loshon horo about the land of Canaan/Israel. It is not too far fetched to think that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died as a result of that same sin, that they too spoke loshon horo about each other. We are told that they did not treat each other with respect; that could easily include undermining each other with their words. 

            This period was originally a time of great anticipation and hope. It was the period leading from our redemption from Egypt to receiving the Torah, a total of forty-nine days, culminating in the fiftieth day of Revelation. In Pirkei Avot, we are told there are forty-eight ways to acquire the Torah, one path corresponding to each day of the journey, with the last day reserved for review. Many of these paths, or characteristics, seem to have more to do with interpersonal relations than with traditional studying, yet they are important to acquire Torah properly. Just a few examples include proper listening, proper speech, communion with colleagues, lev tov/good naturedness, and nosei beol im chavero/sharing in the burden of your fellow man. If these disciples were remiss in these characteristics, how could they truly acquire the Torah which would be given at the end of this time frame? After all, these are qualities that represent the fundamentals of a Torah personality.

            Loshon horo is one of the most evil of sins, continues Rabbi Roth, and reflects more negatively on the speaker than on his subject. Unlike a thief who gets something for his deed, the speaker of loshon horo gains nothing, but is merely malicious.

            Further, notes Rabbi Roth citing the GR”A, the mouth represents the Holy of Holies, from where the spirit of the Godly soul emanates through speech. The evil Titus violated the sanctity of the Holy of Holies of the Beit Hamikdosh by bringing in a harlot. Are we going to defile our holy of holies through unsanctified, improper speech?

            Along these lines, we must recognize that what separates humans from animals is the power of thought and speech that is often defined as the soul God breathed into us. It gives us the power to connect to humans and to Hashem Himself. If we want to bring God’s presence down to earth, we must guard our speech, for loshon horo distances us from God and sends His presence back to heaven, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l. At this time of year, when we are moving toward spirituality, we must take our physical mouths and dedicate them to holy words. After all, the verse tells us netzor leshoncha meira/ guard your tongue from evil. But the connotation of netzor is guarding something precious, unlike shamor/guard, which implies guarding against something negative. Our power of speech is a precious gift which we must guard to keep pure, adds Rabbi Reiss.

            Constant talking or asking irrelevant or superfluous questions can easily lead to quarreling, even between a husband and wife, writes Rabbi Pliskin. Better to limit one’s speech, stop the chirping and tweeting (yes, that’s also loshon horo) as the peddler in Tzippori/City of Birds taught.

            In a completely different interpretation, the “peddler” was not a simple merchant, but actually another Amora.  The Be’er Moshe writes that according to the Gemarrah in Avodah Zoro, this peddler was Rabbi Alexander who was teaching another aspect, based on the second half of the verse and on the verse which follows: “… who loves days and sees good? Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” It is not enough just to avoid evil. One must also pursue good if one is to love life and lead a fulfilling life. It is not enough for the metzora to go to the priest and go through some ritual. To love life and live a good life again, he must actively seek goodness, actively see the good in others, to use his tongue to embrace others, to encourage them. To use his power of speech for prayer and Torah study, for good.

            Expanding on this idea, Rabbi Frand cites Rabbi Nissan Alpert z”l, who puts the question mark in mid verse and uses the second half of the verse to begin the answer. “Who is the one who desires life? [It is] he who loves days of seeing good.” In other words, what we say about someone or something is generally determined by our preconceived notions and attitude. When the spies went to reconnoiter the promised land, they were already looking for the negative, and therefore interpreted everything they saw in a negative light. Similarly, if a person views everything with a jaundiced eye, he will interpret everything in the negative and speak negatively of it. Only by determining to see good can one overcome his tendency to speak evil. The kohain looks not only to see if the nega/lesion has change eino/its appearance, but also if the person afflicted with the nega has changed his perspective/eino. Sometimes words can be misinterpreted, as the foreign young man who wanted to compliment a young lady and kept saying how “awful” she was, thinking that if “awesome” meant she had some awe, “awful” must mean she was completely full of awe. Seeking a positive interpretation can build worlds.

            There is yet further depth to this verse and the peddler’s declaration. When one refrains from sin, writes Letitcha Elyon, one receives merit for refraining from sin. But that is not the same as merit for performing a mitzvah. Loson horo is different, however, for when one is refraining from loshon horo, one is actually sanctifying his mouth, and as such, he receives merit and reward not only for refraining from sin, but also for the positive aspect of sanctification. It is as if he is not only refraining from ingesting poison, but also ingesting positive nutrients.

            Rabbi Frand expands on this idea by using the Chida’s interpretation of this Medrash. The peddler did not ask, “Who seeks life?” He asked, “Who seeks an elixir of life.” In other words, how can one preserve his life. Citing the Chovos Halevovos, Rabbi Frand explains that when we ascend to heaven after 120 years, the accounting of our mitzvoth and aveiroth will not seem accurate. However, it will be explained that whenever we spoke loshon horo of someone, we are credited with his aveiroth, and when others spoke loshon horo about us, we acre credited with their mitzvoth. The peddler’s lesson was that guarding one’s tongue preserves the mitzvoth to oneself so they will not be credited to another.

            When we actively pursue the mitzvah to guard ourselves from the affliction of tzoraas by being careful not to speak loshon horo and trying to create positive energy through positive speech, we are doing much more than refraining from committing one sin. We are ridding ourselves and the world of so much negativity and infusing ourselves and the world with good days and vibrant life.