TALK, TALK, TALK
Rabbi David Walk
It does seem that most of us talk too much. Or am I alone in this category? When you read through the book of Leviticus, it seems that talking is a dangerous enterprise. The major topic in the Torah readings of Tazria and Metzora is that mysterious ailment called tzara'at. Many have believed that this is leprosy, but it may be more akin to psoriasis. However, most authorities believe that it is the result of gossip. Last week we read: you shall not lie, you shall not swear falsely, you shall not curse a deaf person, you shall not go around as a gossipmonger, you shall not taunt a stranger, and any man who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. That's a lot of prohibitions dealing with the power of speech. Perhaps the best rule is 'mum's the word'. Yet in much rabbinic literature, especially of a mystical nature, humans are described as medaber, the one who speaks. So, obviously we must find a happy medium between talking too much and refraining from speech. How do we do that? Are there ground rules or guide lines? I think that we can get some guidance from this week's Torah reading, whose very name is emor or 'speak'. And that's a command I'm very happy to obey.
Our parsha begins with the famous statement: And the Lord said to Moses: Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none of you defile himself for a dead person among his people, except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and his unmarried sister (Leviticus 21:1-3). We learn a lot from that declaration. First of all, this is the list of people for we must mourn and sit shiva. We also learn from this the prohibition of kohanim becoming impure for anyone but those close relatives. As a result they often are standing outside at funerals and at cemeteries. But this week I'm interested in the format of the material. It varies from the usual formulation of 'And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying'. It totally eschews the Hebrew term for 'speak' (dabir), and uses the word for 'say' (emor), three times. But why? Let's investigate.
Here are a few attempts throughout the ages. Rashi said that the language implies that the kohanim were responsible to pass this knowledge and commitment from generation to generation. The Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century France) suggested that this special language was a softer expression after the language of being holy, the kohanim were being encouraged to maintain a higher standard, that of purity. Rabbeinu Bachye (died 1340) opined that this language of them relating it to others was not confined to the kohanim themselves, but that they should become the teachers of Torah for the entire nation. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (1690-1750) offered that this is a more exalted expression and refers to the special place of the kohanim who were privileged to stand before God.