Saturday 7th March 2020 11th Adar 5780
Parashat Tetzaveh -
Exodus 27:20 – 30:110, 1 Samuel 15:2 – 34; Mark 6:14 – 29
20 Now, you shall command (Tetzaveh) - äåöú äúàå - the Children of
Israel that they shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil - úéæ ïîù - for
illumination, to kindle the lamp continually: ãéîú øð úìòäì
21 In the Tent of Meeting, outside the Partition that is near the Testimonial-
tablets, Aaron and his sons shall arrange it from evening until morning,
before Hashem, an eternal decree for their generations, from the Children of
Our parasha this Shabbat is called Tetzaveh – command. It is also one of those special Shabbatot that punctuate the Jewish year and is known as the Sabbath of Remembrance – Shabbat Zachor – שבת זכור - which is always observed before Purim. Deuteronomy 25:17-19, describing the attack by Amalek recorded in Exodus 17:8-11, is recounted. There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek.
Many people know that the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism are
2) idol worship and
3) illicit sexual relations.
But I am fairly certain that very few people know the sin that Jewish tradition (Arachin 15b) considers as more severe than these three, even combined, is the sin of gossip – also known as “loshon hora” or evil speech.
Loshon hora – gossip – is insidious, and yet the almost uncontrollable desire to repeat it, is universal. In fact, the Talmud laments that nearly everyone one is guilty of some form of gossip (Bava Basra 165a). Unfortunately, it is so prevalent that people often take a cavalier attitude. I once had a friend tell me “I never repeat gossip – so listen carefully the first time!”
You may be aware that man’s first sin was disobeying God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but the first instance of gossip precedes even that! In Genesis (3:1-6) we find that the snake lures Chava (“Eve”) to eat from the Tree of Knowledge by telling her that the reason God prohibited man from eating from the Tree is because God knew that if man ate from it, then man would become God like.
Thus, the first instance of gossip is from the snake in the Garden of Eden and was the first evil act in the world. The snake, being dissatisfied with his place in the world, desired to be with Eve and wished to do away with Adam. The snake was aware that God had told Adam that he would die if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:17). So he plotted to do away with Adam by getting him to eat from what God had forbidden him to eat. Thus the original sin of loshon hora was utilized to try and eliminate a rival.
According to Jewish tradition (See Ramban Genesis 2:7) speech is the attribute that makes man absolutely unique in the animal kingdom. In Judaism, man isn’t referred to as a rational animal; rather man is called a “medaber – a creature of speech.” Speech isn’t merely communication, which many animals have mastered to varying degrees. The power of speech is that people can articulate ideas and thoughts that are reflective of their individuality and express them in a myriad of ways; to convey love, gratitude, empathy, and a host of other concepts.
After the Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai, they sinned with the incident of the Golden Calf. This transgression drove a wedge between them and God. In order to restore this relationship, God offered them the opportunity to build a home for Him to dwell within their midst. This “home” was known as the Tabernacle (Mishkan), and the entire nation participated in its construction. This was a place for the Jewish people to commune with God and bring Him sacrifices to express their desire to reconnect.
In this week Torah reading, we find a fascinating insight into the sin of loshon hora and what drives people to commit this very destructive sin. The Jerusalem Talmud points out that not only were the sacrifices that they brought an atonement for their sins, but even the clothes worn during the services by the priestly caste, known as Cohanim (which is the plural of Cohen), served as an atonement. The Talmud goes on to explain which clothes atoned for which sin.
One of the garments worn by the high priest was called “me’il” – it was a four cornered robe of sorts made of wool dyed sky blue and ringed along its bottom hem with thirty six golden bells, alternating with pomegranates. The purpose of these bells was to announce the comings and goings of the high priest as he entered the different rooms of the Tabernacle. The Talmud says that this particular clothing atoned for the sin of loshon hora. As the Talmud puts it “a clothing that makes sound will atone for the sin of sound (i.e. gossip).”
But this requires a deeper explanation. How is it that so serious a transgression is merely reduced to being a “sin of sound”? One would hardly think that the damage caused by evil speech should be reduced to merely being a violation of a noise ordinance! Moreover, in Judaism, in order to receive atonement, there has to be a connection between the atonement and the sin itself. How do little tinkling bells indicate a lesson learned or offer any kind of atonement?
Have you ever noticed what happens when a crowd suddenly hears a large noise? Everyone instinctively turns around to look for the source of the sound. Sound has a way of attracting attention. The Talmud is teaching us a very deep lesson here.
This self-serving intent of the snake in Eden is the same motivation that drives people to speak loshon hora. The person speaking loshon hora is looking to attract attention to himself and be compared favourably to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Their deep personal dissatisfaction with themselves is ameliorated by pushing others down. Essentially the offender is saying “look at me!” It is therefore precisely a sin of the principle of sound!
How then does the robe offer an atonement? The robe also serves to call attention to the wearer. The difference is that the sound of the tinkling of the bells is there to pay respect to the presence of HaShem, not to draw attention to the high priest himself. The high priest was cognizant that the presence of God is immanent and that he was merely a visitor. The bells serve to announce his movements and serves to respect the presence of others. Thus, according to the oral tradition, this atones for the sin of gossip, which essentially is trying to aggrandize oneself at the expense of another.
In fact, from the bells on the bottom of the robe of the high priest we learn that even when entering one’s own home (when there are others within it), the proper etiquette is to knock on the door first. Or, to ring the doorbell. In other words, you're supposed to announce your arrival prior to entering. Meaning, you are calling attention to yourself to pay respect to the personal space of others (spouse, children, etc. within) and not just barge into their space. In this way, we learn to manage our own egos and respect the space of others.
Lastly, we should all remember that there are three things a person can talk about: 1) ideas 2) things and 3) other people. The highest level of conversation is to discuss ideas and concepts. That is the subject matter where we should strive to maintain the majority of our conversations. The next level down is to talk about things (e.g. cars, wealth, experiences, or current events); it is acceptable but not preferable.
The third category, that of talking about people, should be avoided in almost all circumstances, unless you are trying to prevent harm from befalling others. Most importantly we should consider choosing our friends based upon these guidelines of what they like to discuss, as it absolutely will tell you what quality of person they are.
Gossip is when you hear something you like, about someone you don't like.
— Earl Wilson (famed gossip columnist)