Weekly Sermon

TAZRIA 5784

TAZRIA 5784

 A Time to Be Silent and a Time to Speak

Let me share with you some facts reported in the media regarding Israel in Gaza.

·       In the 1st 2 weeks after October 7th, the NY Times, the Washington Post, CBS, CNN all reported that Israel bombed the Baptist Hospital in Gaza killing 500-1000 patients … while a video revealed that it was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket aimed at Israel and that it only hit the parking lot killing no patients!

·     Media casualty figures of Gaza civilians is about 30,000 killed by Israel. However, the media only reports the number given by the “Gaza Health Ministry” run by Hamas. The problem is that it does not distinguish between civilians and combatants—which at last count was at least 13,000, leaving a death toll of 17,000 civilians! And the ratio of 17,000 civilian casualties to the total Gaza population of more than 2 million is surprisingly low for a war. And even this number is suspect as the Gaza Health Ministry often reports the same numbers for several days indicating that these numbers are made up!

·      CNN this week has accused Israel of “blockading aid to Gaza.” The truth is that more than 300 aid trucks entered Gaza last Wednesday alone, bringing the total to over 24,000 aid trucks since October 7. Also, has there ever been a nation at war that gives aid to its enemy?

This week's Torah portion Tazria, and the coming holiday of Passover provide seemingly conflicting messages regarding what is proper behavior. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik writes: Upon delivery from Egyptian bondage the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage their self-expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus, the Israelites regained their speech.

The freedom we received with the Passover story allowed us the right to free speech—to say what we wanted to say. And in fact, speech is very much a part of the Passover observance—as we say in the Haggadah quoting the Torah (Ex. 13:8) V’higad’ta l’vincha (And you shall tell it to your children), v’chol hamarbeh harey zeh m’shubach (and the more one tells the [Exodus] story, the more he is to be praised). The lesson is obvious: if you’re free, raise your voice.

And, my friends, there is no better time than now with Israel under attack and the recent surge in antisemitism to raise your voice. How? Here’s one way. Cheryl showed me a WhatsApp group called SJA or “Students for Jewish Advocacy.” To join, you simply click on this link (https://chat.whatsapp.com/LSIUG4s3gWUJ7PDlMudBdY) and join a “Letter and Email” group. When there’s a Jewish issue—which happens regularly—you will receive a WhatsApp text asking you to sign on to a letter advocating for Israel or your fellow Jews. If it meets your approval, just click to sign and that’s it. These groups have been very successful. Here’s 3 recent examples:

1.    The group wrote to the Gov. of Alabama to sign a resolution backing Israel and condemning Hamas. He signed it yesterday.

2.    Apple was using the Palestinian flag emoji when typing “Jerusalem.” They removed it in an update because of the letters.

3.    University of California Santa Barbara student body president became subject to a recall because she was Jewish. Letters were sent and the recall vote never happened.

Passover teaches us we must raise our voices.

But this week our Torah portion is Tazria—about a leprosy-like disease. The Talmud (Eyrachin 16a) teaches this leprosy was not a natural affliction, but a miraculous affliction that only affected Jews who sin with lashon hara—slander or gossip. And so, it appears that our speech is not free. We can’t say anything we want. We have to be careful not to say lashon hara—slander or gossip.

What is considered lashon hora? The Torah (Lev. 19:16) simply tells us: Lo teyleych rachil b’amecha (You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people). Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan—19th century sage— devoted his life to determining what speech is permissible and what is not. For him lashon hara is more than lying or gossip. It is telling anything about another human being—whether false or even true—that may besmirch that person’s name and may affect our relationships.

It’s so easy to take pot shots at people—but so unfair. It also diminishes us because whenever you point the finger at someone—try it and see—3 fingers point back at you. So, before you say lashon hara, pause for a second and see if you can’t give that person the benefit of the doubt.

Based on R. Kagan’s book, Chafetz Chaim, my colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg offers the following game of lashon hora. He asks: “You tell me, are the following statements proper or not from a Jewish perspective?”

·       If one says: “Schwartz doesn’t give any money to charity.” Is that permissible? No, even if it’s true. It can cause others to think less of Schwartz.

·       How about: “Schwartz has a bad temper. I don’t mean that negatively, sometimes temper serves him well.” You permitted to say it? No. It still can be negative and damaging in spite of the denial.

·       Is one allowed to say: “I have a bad temper?” Also no. You’re not allowed to put yourself down.

·       What about writing a recommendation like: “Dear Sir, you asked me for a letter of recommendation for David Freidman. He is a very affable young man, easy to get along with and competent in your area of concern. I fear, however, that he does not possess the kind of creative powers you are looking for and he tends to work short hours and give up early when confronted with difficulties.” Are you allowed to write that about someone? Yes, that’s allowed. A candid letter of recommendation requested and sent in confidence is okay, because the prospective employer needs to know.

·       How about this: “Did you know Joe is in jail? He’s been convicted of 5 counts of theft, breaking and entering.” Is that OK? Yes, it’s a matter of public record and can be used as an example of what happens to those who break the law.

·       Now what about this: “Joe is in jail. He’s been convicted of 5 counts of theft, breaking and entering. But did you know he also beat his wife regularly?” Nope! Not OK. You can’t go beyond what the justice system had established.

·       All right, what about this: “Do you know Joe spent time in jail for theft a few years ago?” Not allowed to say that either. Joe served his time and is entitled to a clean slate.

·       What about this: “Hitler was the very incarnation of evil.” That you’re allowed to say, history must be told. 

·       What about this: “Joe, who died last week, was an adulterer and a scoundrel.” No, no. The rule against slander applies to the dead as well as to the living.

·       Or: “Don’t mention Joe to me because I don’t want to get into the things he did.” That’s not permitted because it implies that he did terrible things and allows people to imagine even more damaging things than what you thought he did.

·       One doesn’t have to say slanderous things to cause damage. Example: “Joe was not drunk last night.” Not OK because it implies that he often is.

·       Or: “Your Honor, I saw the defendant shoplift that shirt at Macy’s and leave without paying for it.” That’s allowed. You must tell the truth under oath in court.

·       Let’s try this: “No, stop! Don’t kill him! I’ll tell you what you want to know. Yes, Sam did steal those documents and try to frame you for it.” That’s allowed. Saving a life overrides the prohibition against lashon hora. It’s called pikuach nefesh.

·       Last one: “Don’t buy from this merchant. Last week he overcharged me, sold me low quality merchandise that was not as advertised, and his scales are rigged.” You’re allowed to say that, but only if it reflects your own personal experience—not someone else’s. Buyers must be warned.

Once in a sermon I asked the congregation to try to refrain from speaking lashon hara for just 24 hours, figuring that if they could do it for 24 hours, then perhaps they could try for 48 and then more. The next day someone said to me, “I tried Rabbi, I really did. I made it through the Kiddush after services, but I only made it to the parking lot before I succumbed!”

So, my friends, we have Passover with its freedom of speech, telling us we must speak up for ourselves and our people when necessary. We also have our Torah portion Tazria telling us we can get leprosy for certain speech—lashon hara. Passover and Tazria come together this Shabbat echoing the passage in Ecclesiastes (3:7): “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,” teaching us an important lesson: Speak up for yourself and your people. Otherwise—although you’re free to say what you want—you’d be smart to keep your mouth shut if you have nothing good to say. Amen!

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