This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion of Korach and his followers. We read how “the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that were with Korach” (Numbers 16:32). Evidently, Korach and his entire family perished. Yet, later on the Torah tells us: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach… but the sons of Korach did not die.” (Numbers 26:10-11) Apparently, his sons actually survived! We know this must be the case because there are a number of Psalms (such as numbers 42 to 49) which begin with a byline saying they were written by the “sons of Korach”. How is this possible?
This week’s parasha, Metzora, is primarily concerned with the laws of various skin diseases. Jewish tradition holds that the main reason for a person to contract these skin afflictions is for the sin of evil speech. The term metzora, loosely translated as “leper”, is said to be a contraction of motzi ra or motzi shem ra, “one who brings out evil” or gives someone a “bad name”. The Sages described lashon hara, a general category referring to all kinds of negative speech (even if true), as the gravest of sins.
The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the parasha (on Leviticus 13:59) that the word “Torah” is used in conjunction with words like tzaraat or metzora five times, alluding to the fact that one who speaks lashon hara is likened to one who has transgressed all five books of the Torah! The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) famously states that one who speaks lashon hara “kills” three people: the subject of the evil speech, the speaker, and the listener. The same page states that lashon hara is equal to the three cardinal sins: murder, idolatry, and adultery. Other opinions (all supported by Scriptural verses) include: one who speaks lashon hara is considered a heretic, deserves death by stoning, and God personally declares that He and the speaker of lashon hara cannot dwell in the same space.
Having said that, the Talmud’s definition of lashon hara is quite narrow. It doesn’t include general tale-bearing, but specifically refers to slandering another person. It also states that lashon hara is only applicable when two people are speaking in private, secretly. If one slanders before three or more people, then it is evident that he doesn’t care that the subject will know he said it. It is like saying it publicly, or to the person’s face directly, which does not constitute lashon hara. (It is still a horrible thing to do, of course.) This is why God says (Psalms 101:5) that “Whoever slanders his fellow in secret, him I will destroy.” It is specifically when done in secret that it is such a terrible, cowardly sin.
Since Talmudic times, the definition of lashon hara has broadened considerably. It has come to include rechilut, “gossiping”, saying negative things about another person that are true, saying them publicly, and even to suggest or imply something disparaging about another, without naming a person specifically. When it comes to gossiping, one can find an allusion to its severity from the Torah itself, which states “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). In a single verse, the Torah juxtaposes gossiping with failing to prevent bloodshed. One can learn from this that one who listens to gossip (specifically where another person is spoken of unfavourably) without trying to stop it is like one standing idly while the “blood” of another is being shed.
One question frequently asked about this is whether lashon hara applies between a husband and wife. We saw that the Talmud states lashon hara is especially horrible when spoken in secret between two people. Does this include a married couple as well? On the one hand, we want to distance ourselves from negative speech as much as possible, at all times. On the other hand, we expect a married couple to be allowed to speak freely between one another as they wish. After all, they are two halves of one soul and considered a singular unit.
The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1839-1933), generally considered the greatest authority on lashon hara, forbids such speech even between husband and wife. However, many other great authorities before and after him (including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, 1910-1995, and the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) ruled on the contrary, and permitted a husband and wife to speak about whatever is on their mind, particularly if something bothers them. Technically, even the Chafetz Chaim is lenient in a case where a spouse is in distress and needs to get something off their shoulders.
Still, all agree that we should limit negative words as much as possible, and certainly keep gossip to a minimum. Of course, when negative words have a constructive purpose, it is not considered lashon hara at all, whether between spouses or fellows. This is the case if a person undoubtedly knows, for example, that a particular contractor or salesman is dishonest, and tells a friend in order to protect them from harm.
Repairing Evil Speech, Repairing the World
In the days of the Temple, the kohanim would bring about atonement for the nation through sacrifices and various offerings and rituals. The most important time for atonement was Yom Kippur, and the greatest atonement ritual of the day was when the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, would enter the Holy of Holies (just once a year) and fill it with incense smoke. What was the ultimate purpose of this? The Talmud (Arakhin 16a) states that it served to atone for lashon hara! This was especially necessary because, elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 165a) states: “Many transgress the law of stealing, few transgress the prohibition of adultery, and all transgress lashon hara.” Everyone is guilty of negative speech, at least to some degree. How do we repair this sin, especially when we don’t have a Temple today?
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states that if one is a Torah scholar, they should learn more Torah, and if one is not a Torah scholar, they should strive to be more humble. Like all the other statements, support is brought from verses in Tanakh. King Solomon said “A healing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). The Sages see the use of the word tongue (lashon) as alluding to lashon hara, and therefore if one wants to heal their lashon hara, they should cleave to the Tree of Life. What is the Tree of Life? King Solomon himself said in another place (Proverbs 3:18) that the Torah is a Tree of Life! Therefore, to rectify the sin of lashon hara one should study Torah.
Upon closer examination, we see that Torah study is actually the perfect remedy for lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara they are using their tongue in a negative way and infusing bad energy into the world. When a person learns Torah (which is traditionally done vocally), they are using their tongue in a positive way and infusing good energy into the world. The balance is thereby restored, measure for measure. On top of this, the purpose of Torah study is ultimately to make a person better. The Torah is the best tool to counter the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, as God Himself declared: “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its remedy” (Sifre Devarim, 45). Thus, a person who learns Torah simultaneously neutralizes the evil speech they have spoken and refines their inner qualities so that they will not participate in evil speech in the future.
On that note, there are two kinds of people when it comes to lashon hara: those that like to speak it, and those that love listening to it. The latter often quell their conscience by telling themselves that they never speak lashon hara, God forbid, but only passively, faultlessly, hear it. As we’ve seen above, the listener is almost as culpable as the speaker. Thankfully, there is a remedy for this, too. While many don’t necessarily learn Torah directly from a sefer or on their own, today we have unlimited potential to learn Torah by listening to lectures. These are shared widely on social media, and through digital devices, on apps, and over the radio. Every person today is a click away from Torah learning.
This takes us back to the Talmud, which stated that a Torah scholar can repair lashon hara by learning, while one who is not a Torah scholar should become more humble. The big question here is how can a person just “become more humble”? Humility is one of the most difficult traits to attain! We might even say that the Talmud should have required the Torah scholar—who is constantly learning, growing, and working on themselves—to “become more humble”, not the other way around! How can we make sense of the Talmud?
To prove the point about the non-Torah scholar, the Talmud uses that same verse from Proverbs: “A healing tongue is a tree of life, while perverseness through it will break the spirit.” The plain reading of the verse is that a person who uses their tongue for positive, healing purposes is likened to a Tree of Life, while one who uses their tongue for perverseness is destroying their soul. The Sages take the latter half of the verse to mean, on a simple level, that one who uses their tongue for perverseness should “break their spirit”, ie. become more humble, in order to rectify the sin. There is also a deeper way to read that same verse.
To solve the puzzle, one needs to re-examine what “it” (bah, in Hebrew) refers to. The simple meaning is that “it” refers to the tongue, and one who speaks perverseness through it (the tongue) will break their spirit. However, the verse can just as easily be read so that “it” refers to the Tree of Life. If so, the verse is read this way: “A healing tongue is a tree of life while perverseness, through it [the Tree of Life] will break the spirit.” What is it that will “break” one’s spirit and cause them to become humble? The Tree of Life itself!
Therefore, it is specifically the learning of Torah, the Tree of Life, that brings one to more humility. With this in mind, if we go back to the Talmudic statement of our Sages, what they are saying is: The Torah scholar should rectify their sin by learning more Torah, as they have yet to attain the proper level of holiness, while a non-Torah scholar should learn by listening to more Torah, for this will have the same effect of bringing a person to humility, and rectifying lashon hara.
At the end, this rectification is what will bring Mashiach. In Kabbalistic texts, the generation before Mashiach is in the sefirah of Yesod, which is concerned primarily with sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this is one of the major global issues today. The time following Mashiach’s coming is that of the final sefirah, Malkhut, “Kingdom”. One of the most famous passages from the Tikkunei Zohar is “Patach Eliyahu”, customarily recited before the prayers. There we are told that “Malkhut is the mouth, the Oral Torah.” While Yesod is the sexual organ, Malkhut is the mouth; it is Torah sh’be’al Peh, the Oral Torah, literally “Torah on the mouth”. The key path to realizing Mashiach, Malkhut, is by rectifying the mouth, which is done through the study of Torah.*
As we prepare for Pesach, we should remember the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, ch. 32) which states that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things: for not changing their names, not forgetting their language, not engaging in sexual sins, and not speaking lashon hara. The same is true if we wish to bring about the Final Redemption. Not engaging in sexual immorality is a direct reference to Yesod, while the other three all deal with the holy tongue, with proper speech and Malkut: using holy names, speaking the Holy Language, and making sure to speak only positive words.
*More specifically, the first rectification is that of the “lower mouth”, Yesod, a tikkun that will be fulfilled by Mashiach ben Yosef. This is followed by the tikkun of the upper mouth, Malkhut, fulfilled by Mashiach ben David (of whom the Prophet says he will slay evil with his mouth, Isaiah 11:4) bringing about God’s perfect Kingdom on Earth.
In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.
1. Personal Development that Works
Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”
Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.
One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.
There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:
The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.
Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.
Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.
2. The Importance of Community
While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.
Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.
It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.
And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!
3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe
Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.
While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.
The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.
And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.
In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.
The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?
The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.
Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.
And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.
Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)
Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.