Choose Your Own Identity
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
We are led by our tongue. To a significant extent, what we choose to say creates who we are.
A sensitive, refined manner of speech usually indicates a sensitive, refined personality. It certainly leads the person in the right direction. The thinking of the mind, the expression of the mouth, and the feeling of the heart as it observes and integrates that which is said all work together in a circular process leading the speaker towards whomever he or she chooses to become.
A society sensitive to the powerful influence of speech, not just in terms of social interactions, but in terms of the very identities of those speaking, does not so readily ascribe to absolute democracy of the tongue. Casual reams of criticism and the petty wrenching apart of relationships for the sake of nothing more than a short-fused moment of self expression are not so easily dismissed in a society aware of what the power of speech can do.
The Torah’s vision of what the Jewish People are meant to look like depicts a society fully sensitive to the fact that “life and death are in the hands of the tongue”. Those who choose to ignore the halachos (Jewish laws) legislating against the many details of destructive speech ignore much more than a moment’s self-restraint against mindless nitpicking or gossip. They ignore the faculty that defines who we may become as human beings for good or for genuine evil.
The consequences commanded in the Torah teach us to identify and respond to the source of this sin. Tzara’as, a biblical disease supernaturally caused by engaging in destructive speech, led to serious consequences: “All the days that the affliction is upon him he shall remain contaminated… He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13: 46). The health, wellbeing, and quality of Jewish society were preserved by such measures, not because the sinner was outcast from his people, but because his time alone prepared him to be welcomed back in.
He who had estranged the intimate and made enemies of the friendly had destroyed society with his words -- and for that he was distanced from it. Sitting outside the camp in isolation brought the former gossip-monger to appreciate the value of society. Hungering for human contact, the warm relationships he considered so casually to infect or poison suddenly were perceived with much greater esteem in his eyes. The graveness of his sin gained meaning against this backdrop. Isolation brought a new appreciation for society and friendship into sharp relief.
The educational process didn’t end with isolation, however. Once the tzara’as had healed, further consequences were commanded: “…For the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread, and hyssop” (ibid 14:4).
Because his affliction had resulted from destructive speech, all so much petty chattering, his purity had to be regained through the offering up of “live birds” whose chattering chirping takes place constantly. The “cedar wood” responded to the grossness of spirit that had caused his tzara’as. As the word tola’as could be translated as either “crimson thread” or “worm”, Rashi commented in accordance with the Midrash, “What is his way of repairing himself to heal? He must humble himself from his arrogance like a worm and like a hyssop” (Rashi ibid).
Before leaving isolation to return to human company in the camp, the offering taught the speaker that he must let go of the true source of his tzara’as: his former sense of contempt for those surrounding him. This was the attitude that allowed him to speak ill in the first place. The crimson thread and hyssop reminded him that humility was the critical ingredient in a healthy attitude towards others.
We can speak destructively only when we forget the value of the person or people we are speaking of. However, humility is not just good common sense, it’s an indication that we are in touch with reality. Every Jew bears an entirely unique, utterly priceless spiritual identity.
Speaking with humility makes space for other people’s identities. That’s when connection, friendship, and love can begin to blossom. Is that who you want to be? The wonderful friend, the terrific spouse, the fantastic parent? Start talking like it. You’ll be amazed where your words may take you. Besides discovering the beauty of the people around you, you may also discover who you are.